In 30-plus years as a business consultant and writer, I've come across many situations where the concept of optimum minimum applies. As a way to ensure effective use of resources in the face of certain risks, optimum minimum is the gold standard for many business investments. It's also the most effective model for thinking about the value and roles of government.
The least you can do without incurring unacceptable risks
Before proceeding, it's important to know that optimum minimum is not the best model for all human activities. For example, when the motivation is short-term profit, optimum maximum may be ideal. In many more situations, however, optimum minimum is absolutely the sweet spot. It is the place where investment is carefully matched to a thoughtful risk-reward equation. Not over-spending, not under-spending, and not creating exposure to undue risk.
When people ask me about the proper role of government, I always answer with optimum minimum. For example, this concept definitely applies to the Republican voter suppression agenda.
Optimum minimum in voting requires asking how much cost should be incurred to ensure ample opportunity for people to vote while also avoiding unnecessary risks. For example, no one would argue that early voting should last for six months. But what about six weeks? Six days? Six hours? Six minutes? What is the right amount of time needed so more people can vote,m without going overboard? Through trial and error over many years, we had a pretty good feel for that number. Republicans have ignored that had-won knowledge in favor of a partisan agenda.
The same argument applies to Voter ID. What amount of money should be spent on solving a fraud problem, the size of which is fundamentally unknowable? If we had only to spend $1, most people would say fine. But what if we had to spend $100 million, which is more likely the case? How many Republicans would consider that figure a smart investment? (The only case to be for spending that kind of money is if your goal was voter suppression, not efficient government.)
Going beyond voting, optimum minimum is the perfect standard for many policy decisions. For example, what amount of highway signage would qualify as optimum minimum? How often should median strips be mowed? How many teachers should be assigned to how many students? Who should pay what in taxes? What size of buffers should be required to protect rivers from farm fertilizer run-off?
When your motive is to ensure profits for special interests, all of these questions are easy to answer. Zero buffers on rivers. More money to highway contractors. More students in bigger classes. Less taxes no matter what. And so on.
But when your motivation is fostering a more sustainable, just society, achieving the optimum minimum is a challenging process requiring careful thought and balance. People in North Carolina want the least government necessary, but not so little that we put important things at risk. Republicans today are putting important things at risk. We can and must do better.
Something to like