Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Regulatory Irony

Tibor R. Machan

Government interference in our lives is most often defended on grounds that the weak, vulnerable, and unprepared in society just cannot be expected to cope with the strong and clever. This is but a code for class warfare talk, of course. Some of us must be assisted in their lives, even if we don't know nor ask for it. The latest rationale being offered for all the meddling is dubbed libertarian paternalism or nudging. It means that even if outright regimentation by government is undesirable, if bureaucrats just gently push us around, provide incentives to do the right thing, that's definitely defensible against objections that invoke the menace of government oppression.

Now all this is pretty bad reasoning since, as I recently argued, one has no assurance that the people doing the nudging will be nudging us the right way and not taking advantage of their position as official, certified nudgers. In short, who will nudge the nudgers, who will do paternalistic duty for the paternalists who are, let us remember, not only not immune to the foibles against which they are meant to guard us but, because of their increased power over people, are more tempted to misbehave?

But there are some other problems with the idea that government regulations do any good. John Stossel showed some of it in his wonderful ABC-TV special, "Are we scaring ourselves to death?" Government regulation shortens people's lives because of its enormous cost from which the poor suffer especially since they can least afford paying for it via taxes (income, property, sales, and the more hidden ones). Furthermore, a consequence of government regulation is, of course, the enormous bureaucracy and red tape that people face in their lives as a result of the various safety and security measures the innumerable federal, state, county and municipal agencies demand from everyone in the market place. Consumer protection is what they call it but it is anything but that.

All this is perhaps a bit easier for me than for many others to grasp because in my early years I lived in the most bureaucratized society conceived by the human mind, in a communist country. Everything our family tried to do needed to be approved, authorized, overseen, permitted, and such by some tentacle of some level or branch of government. And one thing is for sure. Not everyone is equally adept at coping with, let alone resisting, those obstacles to living one life.

Even apart from government--but often because of it--an ordinary person needs to deal with innumerable bureaucratic impediments. I have always been a bit more prepared for this then others because of that nasty training I got back living under the communist regime in Budapest. For the rest of my life I have cultivated a tenacity that has managed to do wonders with the surrounding bureaucracy. Whether it be getting a passport at the post office, reversing some idiotic fee at the bank, obtaining my child's drivers license, or figuring out what went wrong with a payment my employer was supposed to make but went astray en route, I have worked relentlessly not to permit these hurdles to set me back too much.

But can one expect that we are all so well trained in handling these pitfalls? Millions of people are probably tripped up, more or less frequently, by much of the red tape they confront, coming at them under the banner: "We are the government and we are here to help you." These are, of course, the very citizens in whose name the government sold us on their regulatory measures. The powerful, rich, savvy folks, in contrast, are better equipped to deal with all of this. They hire lawyers, human resource experts, and various teams of specialists who help them deal with government regulators, inspectors, planners, and the rest.

It's ironic that it is Ralph Nader who is called a consumer advocate when his own advocacy of all that government meddling helps make millions of ordinary consumers pay through the nose and falter in other ways as they try to deal with the umpteen levels of government that's nudging us about, naturally, all for our own good.

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