Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Eric D. DixonTo Protect and Subvert
Posted at 12:42 am on January 24, 2012, by Eric D. Dixon

Public choice article of the day, from The Atlantic:

Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals to foster rapid growth and make up for unhygienic living conditions. Many bacteria that live on animals adapt and transfer to humans, spreading superbugs that are often resistant to treatment.

For more than 35 years, the FDA has recognized that giving antibiotics to farm animals poses a risk to human health, yet the agency has done almost nothing to stop it. Indeed, it has mastered the art of making inaction look like action. Last May, NRDC and our partners sued the FDA to prompt it to take action. Instead, the agency retrenched.

It started by claiming the livestock industry could police itself. In our lawsuit, we asked the FDA to finally rule on two citizen petitions — one filed 12 years ago, the other six years ago — urging the agency to stop the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. In November, the FDA announced that although it shares concerns that the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster is dangerous for humans, it would deny the petition because it was pursuing an alternative strategy.

This “alternative strategy” turns out to be just another name for the status quo. Instead of banning the use of antibiotics in healthy animals, the FDA is allowing the livestock industry to follow a voluntary approach. But we already know voluntary doesn’t work. The FDA has been operating under that model since 1977, yet the practice has expanded exponentially over the years. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house.

In December, the FDA tried to further justify its inaction by erasing the historic record. Back in 1977, the agency proposed to withdraw approval for the use of several antibiotics in animal feed based on findings published in two notices posted in the Federal Register. The notices containing the findings have been listed in the Federal Register for more than three decades. But just before Christmas a few weeks ago, the FDA pulled the notices. Soon after it buried its 35-year-old proposal, the agency tried to have it both ways. On January 5, it proposed banning off-label uses of a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins on healthy livestock.

To be clear, although I’d like to avoid the consumption of antibiotic-treated livestock as much as possible, I don’t think the FDA should ban it — a clear overreach of government power.

FDAThe lesson here, though, is that when a government agency is tasked with protecting the public interest, public-sector incentives make it a near certainty that the agency will eventually instead collude with special interests in working against the public interest. Instead of serving the one function that is clearly useful for industry oversight — education and advice to consumers who can then make a more informed choice — the FDA has become a legal arbiter of illusory safety.

If the FDA allows a product or practice, the public at large regards it as safe. If the FDA disallows something, society assumes danger. But instituting a top-down decision-making process to centralize the level of risk that consumers should be allowed to take leads to a system that serves nobody well. Life-saving drugs are barred from being used by people who are more than willing to accept their potential hazards. The sale of healthy food is criminalized because of the mere possibility that it could make somebody sick, despite the fact that people can and do get sick from the FDA-approved alternative. And, as shown in The Atlantic, because people trust that D.C. paternalists are looking out for them, they carelessly consume anything that the FDA has let slip through its otherwise iron grip.

A bureaucratic overlord is incapable of choosing the correct balance between risk and reward even for the people in his neighborhood, let alone for more than 300 million strangers scattered throughout the country. There is, however, an alternative, as Larry Van Heerden noted in The Freemam:

The first step to correct these problems is to abolish the FDA, stripping the government of the power to approve drugs (and medical devices) for the market or to remove them from the market. Any rule-making for disclosure and lawsuits for fraud should be devolved to the states.

Even if the FDA were omniscient, objective, and impervious to outside influence, it would be wrong to give it the power to withhold drugs from the market. The proper function of government is to protect individual rights and guard against fraud, not to restrict freedom of choice to protect people from their own ignorance. In fact, the FDA has shown itself to be imperious, subject to prevailing political winds, and indifferent to the thousands of deaths and injuries it has caused.

[…] Forcing all consumers to live by rules that cater to the least responsible individuals imposes huge costs on everyone else and ultimately fails to protect even the willfully ignorant.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Corporatism, Drug Policy, Food Policy, Nanny State, Public Choice, Regulation
Comments: 2 Comments
 

David M. BrownWhat if there were deficit thinking, thinking deficit, on a desert island?
Posted at 1:43 am on August 9, 2011, by David M. Brown

Let’s attempt the program of “economic stimulus” on a desert island. Five persons have survived the shipwreck. Joe is good at gathering berries and reeds, and dressing wounds; Al is good at fishing, hunting and basket-weaving; Bob is good at making huts and gourd-bowls; and Sam, who wants to spend all his time sharpening sticks, and who regards any other kind of employment as beneath him, cannot produce a tool of any usefulness.

Let more and more of the resources that would have been exchanged in life-fostering and productivity-fostering trade between Joe, Al and Bob be confiscated by a fifth person, the king (who happens to have the only gun, a Kalashnikov that he grabbed from the ship before it crashed; elsewise no one would listen to him). And let this confiscated wealth (after a suitably large finder’s fee for the king has been deducted) be given to Sam to subsidize his slow and pointless blunt-stick production, since it would allegedly be unacceptable for Sam to have to accept alms in accordance with the sympathies and judgments of his fellows. And let the king perpetually demand more and more “revenue” to distribute and perpetually bray that criticism of his taxing and spending policies by “economic terrorists” is undermining confidence in the island’s economy.

What are the effects of this confiscatory and redistributive process on the prospects for the islanders’ survival? Discuss.

[Cross-posted to Davidmbrowndotcom.]


Filed under: Culture, Economic Theory, Efficiency, Finance, Food Policy, Gains From Trade, Government Spending, Health Care, Labor, Law Enforcement, Local Government, Market Efficiency, Nanny State, Philosophy, Politics, Property Rights, Taxes, Trade, Unintended Consequences
Comments: None
 

John W. PayneWhat’s the Biggest Problem for Blacks in America?
Posted at 1:37 am on January 4, 2011, by John W. Payne

Linguist John McWhorter argues that it’s the drug war, and I’m inclined to agree:

…[W]ith no War on Drugs there would be, within one generation, no “black problem” in the United States. Poverty in general, yes. An education problem in general—probably. But the idea that black America had a particular crisis would rapidly become history, requiring explanation to young people. The end of the War on Drugs is, in fact, what all people genuinely concerned with black uplift should be focused on, which is why I am devoting my last TNR post of 2010 to the issue. The black malaise in the U.S. is currently like a card house; the Drug War is a single card which, if pulled out, would collapse the whole thing.

That is neither an exaggeration nor an oversimplification. It comes down to this: If there were no way to sell drugs on the street at a markup, then young black men who drift into this route would instead have to get legal work. They would. Those insisting that they would not have about as much faith in human persistence and ingenuity as those who thought women past their five-year welfare cap would wind up freezing on sidewalk grates.

There would be a new black community in which all able-bodied men had legal work even in less well-off communities—i.e. what even poor black America was like before the ’70s; this is no fantasy. Those who say that this could only happen with low-skill factory jobs available a bus ride away from all black neighborhoods would be, again, wrong. That explanation for black poverty is full of holes. Too many people of all colors of modest education manage to get by without taking a time machine to the 1940s, and after the War on Drugs black men would be no exception.

And in this new black community, young black men, much less likely to wind up in prison cells or caskets, would be a constant presence—and thus stay in the lives of their children. The black male community would no longer include a massive segment of underskilled, drug-addicted ex-cons churning in and out by the thousands year after year, and thus black boys growing up in these communities would not see this life as a norm. They would grow up to get jobs, period.

And something else these boys would not grow up with is a bone-deep sense of the police—and thus whites—as an enemy. Because there would be no reason for the police to prowl through his neighborhood.

That’s from McWhorter’s latest piece in The New Republic, and the whole thing is well worth reading. It should come as little surprise that policies created and implemented as a cudgel against minorities have disproportionately harmed them, and it’s long overdue that Americans admit to themselves that the drug war has never been about public health or safety but about persecuting cultural groups that middle class whites didn’t care for.

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.


Filed under: Drug Policy, Law Enforcement, Nanny State
Comments: None
 

David M. BrownThe lesson designed: An example of the new national conformity educational standard
Posted at 9:20 pm on July 22, 2010, by David M. Brown

From the Times report on how many of the states, bribed, are embracing “National Standards for Schools” (maybe):

The common core standards, two years in the making and first released in draft form in March, are an effort to replace the current hodgepodge of state policies.

They lay out detailed expectations of skills that students should have at each grade level. Second graders, for example, should be able to read two-syllable words with long vowels, while fifth graders should be able to add and subtract fractions with different denominators.

Two years in the making. The kids should learn to read and add and subtract. Also, by the ninth grade, I want them doing a précis of Chapter 11 of War and Peace.

Of course, no “national standards” are necessary, no timeline. It’s okay to have the hodgepodge. It’s okay if some kids learn some things faster or slower than other kids. It’s okay if some kids and some teachers and some parents and some schools and some towns and some states do things differently from and perhaps better than other kids, teachers, parents, schools, towns and states; better with respect to some grand timeless objective scale of Means and Content of Learning and Teaching or at least better with respect to their own individual goals, abilities and situations. A country of non-slaves doesn’t need to be and perhaps would not even enjoy being subjugated to any “national standards for schools” either so generic as to be meaningless or so specific and totalitarian as to be obliterative of competition, innovation, and independent-thinking alternative ways of fostering the mental skills and moral values needed to understand that coercively imposed “national standards for schools” is a fascistic egalitarian crock.


Filed under: Education, Nanny State
Comments: None
 

Wirkman VirkkalaProgressive Prohibition
Posted at 7:14 pm on June 9, 2010, by Wirkman Virkkala

From personal experience with self-styled “progressives,” I define Progressivism as the belief in no sort of progress, whatsoever, that is not tied to the growth of the state.

Historically, that’s not a bad definition, either. The Progressive Movement changed the Constitution of the United States with a series of amendments to the Constitution: The income tax, the direct election of senators, prohibition of sale and transportation of alcohol, and women’s suffrage. Each of these amendments grew government. (more…)


Filed under: Drug Policy, Nanny State
Comments: None
 

John W. PayneThis Just In: No Return Seen on Futile Endeavor!
Posted at 11:53 pm on May 19, 2010, by John W. Payne

The AP ran a an article last week highly critical of the drug war that everyone should read in its entirety, but this quote from former drug czar John Walters really my eye:

“To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,” Walters said. “It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcment, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.”

Yes, that is exactly what critics of the drug war are saying, but Walters is seriously delusional if he believes this is any kind of defense of the drug war.  Just because thousands of people have expended lots of time and resources on fighting the drug war doesn’t mean it’s had a positive impact or that it ever will.  It’s like he believes in some kind of bureaucratic labor theory of value.  Walters refuses to even consider the notion that the whole effort has been a counter-productive  waste, which I suppose is understandable given that it might mean admitting that he has been a massive force for evil in the world.

Walters should familiarize himself with the old saying about hoping in one hand and shitting in the other because he would have one very full hand by now.


Filed under: Drug Policy, Nanny State
Comments: 1 Comment
 

Justin M. StoddardA Flagging Stupidity
Posted at 4:23 pm on May 10, 2010, by Justin M. Stoddard

“The essential difficulty of pedagogy lies in the impossibility of inducing a sufficiency of superior men and women to become pedagogues. Children, and especially boys, have sharp eyes for the weaknesses of the adults set over them. It is impossible to make boys take seriously the teaching of men they hold in contempt.” — H.L. Mencken

For the most part, the out-of-proportion response to the suspension of five juveniles for wearing clothing emblazoned with American flags to school on Cinco de Mayo is all over but the shouting. Though this incident serves as incredibly effective fodder for the ever increasingly silly (and almost wholly invented) culture war being waged at the fringes, it also reminds those of us less prone to “the vapors” to recognize what’s important in cases such as these … and it is a central libertarian theme.

Sometimes we are put in the position where we feel obligated to defend stupidity.

Let’s not be coy about it. The act of donning over-the-top patriotic garb on Cinco de Mayo was an act of adolescent sophistry. Not that I’m opposed to such actions, were it aimed in the proper direction. But this was not an act aimed against an authority or unjust policy. It was simply aimed to, well … disrupt. Being such, it was impolite, uncouth, and a bit stupid. Certainly not an action that would elicit my sympathies. Until, that is, the Man stepped in and screwed everything up.

When the principal of the California school got involved, things got a bit surreal. Telling the students that they were welcome to wear such accoutrements any other day other than Cinco de Mayo, said principal immediately made himself out to be a bit of a buffoon. When he suspended the boys for the day and sent them home, he unwittingly thrust himself and the entire brouhaha into the national spotlight, proving to everyone in America what children have known for ages: A school administrator wielding arbitrary power is an irresistible recipe for ridicule.

Don’t let’s get caught in these culture war traps. What these boys did was silly and unwarranted, a feat begging to be ignored. Any intelligent school administrator would have recognized this stunt for what it was, and acted appropriately — that is, not at all. What we have now is a principal (and the school administrators who backed him) worthy only of ridicule and censure.

Race and immigration policies are tangential, here. This is about restraint (the wisdom of knowing when to wield and when to yield the power you have) and personal responsibility, two capacities for which individuals could stand to develop more.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Culture, Education, Nanny State
Comments: 2 Comments
 

Caitlin HartsellWishful thinking at its nuttiest!
Posted at 3:57 pm on April 26, 2010, by Caitlin Hartsell

I came across this article about a U.K. think tank’s suggestion to improve British lives: Cap the work week at 21-hours. It’s brilliant reasoning, of course. The study found that people who work fewer hours have more time for fulfilling recreational activities; therefore, the government should mandate that people work less!

At first I wasn’t sure if this study was serious, but I’ve since found that the New Economics Foundation is a real institute, established in 1986, which “aim[s] to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environment and social issues. We work in partnership and put people and the planet first.”

On to the mocking! From the abstract of the study:

There is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’ today. Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism.

Ah yes, because before the Industrial Revolution, farmers and merchants worked about four hours a day, five days a week. The new work week would have people working the equivalent of two Industrial Revolution work days, when 10-12 hour days were typical. The study goes on:

Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.

If people are more productive, they should be compensated to reflect that. Indeed, we’ve seen a downward trend in average hours while the average standard of living has increased. These changes do not need governmental intervention to occur; if a company believes its employees are more efficient if they work fewer hours, then it would make financial sense for them to translate that into higher pay and decreased hours.

To its credit, the study recognizes potential downsides of this policy. The article about the study says:

Downsides to the reduced working week the NEF has acknowledged are possible are lower pay for those already poorly paid and employers unhappy at increased costs and less skilled workers available.

Not to mention, higher prices at the same time! To produce the same product or services, employers will either have to either pay overtime or hire more workers. An employee working 21 hours per week gains less experience than one working 30 or 40 hours; these employees on average are less efficient. This legislation, like minimum wage, makes the cost of labor more expensive, which will translate into higher prices. The NEF’s solution to these problems?

Proposed solutions to those potential problems were a gradual rather than instant reduction in the working week, a higher minimum wage and incentivizing employers to take on more staff rather than offer overtime.

Ah, even higher prices! If a country is to achieve a 21 hour work week, it is because it has gotten so efficient that 21 hours are all that is necessary. (In fact, some people think you can get rich off a four hour work week, but that’s not for everyone.) Mandating a shorter work week does not achieve efficiency though.

At any rate, more leisure time is not a good to be valued infinitely. As Henry Hazlitt explained in Economics in One Lesson, the increase in leisure time has diminishing marginal returns for the employee, while productivity decreases:

It was a gain to health and leisure to reduce a sixty-hour week to a forty-eight-hour week. It was a gain to leisure, but not necessarily to production and income, to reduce a forty-eight-hour week to a forty-four-hour week. The value to health and leisure of reducing the working week to forty hours is much less, the reduction in output and income more clear.

People don’t work just to work, but in part because increased income translates into higher standard of living and improved leisure time. Leisure activities necessitate money. The added anxiety of lower take home pay and higher prices would potentially outweigh the added benefits of further leisure time. Unfortunately, the NEF’s study does not thoroughly take into account the unintended consequences of their policy suggestion.


Filed under: Economic Theory, Nanny State, Regulation, Unintended Consequences
Comments: 1 Comment
 

Greg KaczorowskiThe Federal Farmer
Posted at 6:05 pm on April 25, 2010, by Greg Kaczorowski

On October 8th, 1787, using the pen name of “Federal Farmer”, an American writes a letter to “The Republican”. The author and the recipient are deliberately vague and ultimately unimportant. The pen name is a play on words as the Federal Farmer is decidedly Anti-Federalist and he seems much more sophisticated in his writing than a stereotypical “farmer” as we might imagine one today. Whoever he was, he was nothing short of very insightful and well spoken in communicating the perils of not clearly defining the boundaries of a national government. In his first letter, the Farmer warns us about what might happen under the Constitution as it existed in its unratified form. Like so many of the Federalist & Anti-Federalist papers, it is revealing that after 223 years, nothing could be timelier.

It must be granted, that if men hastily and blindly adopt a system of government, they will as hastily and as blindly be led to alter or abolish it; and changes must ensue, one after another, till the peaceable and better part of the community will grow weary with changes, tumults and disorders, and be disposed to accept any government, however despotic, that shall promise stability and firmness.

Describing the American public as not applying critical thought to the political process in this country would be the understatement of the century. But the real point made by the Farmer here is that the form of government that is eventually chosen must be designed in such a manner that it does not require much modification post-ratification. However, this creates a second problem. If the system were perfect, what need would there be for a legislature? Like a virus assaulting the body of the Constitution, it is the nature of every politician to attempt to substitute enough of their DNA with the host’s DNA in order to perpetuate them into office in the next election. A politician measures life and death by what tangible proof of leadership he can bring home to his constituents. The result is that the pressure to do more far outweighs the pressure to do less.

When we want a man to change his condition, we describe it as miserable, wretched, and despised; and draw a pleasing picture of that which we would have him assume. And when we wish the contrary, we reverse our descriptions. Whenever a clamor is raised, and idle men get to work, it is highly necessary to examine facts carefully, and without unreasonably suspecting men of falsehood, to examine, and enquire attentively, under what impressions they act. It is too often the case in political concerns, that men state facts not as they are, but as they wish them to be; and almost every man, by calling to mind past scenes, will find this to be true.

Politics 101. The statement above sums up the car-salesman-like politicians of today and, undoubtedly, the politicians of 1787. It is neither new nor unique to our times that politicians are, by necessity, people who seek power. It is a character trait that is necessary for any man who would place himself under the kind of scrutiny he would face in the political arena. The noble images we are fed of even the Founding Fathers (right down to the label “father”), is contradictory to the personality needed to be successful in that role. Like the Farmer suggests, a politician is predisposed to lie, cheat and steal to achieve their ends. It is the responsibility of the consumer to invest themselves in the process or suffer the consequences.

It is natural for men, who wish to hasten the adoption of a measure, to tell us, now is the crisis – now is the critical moment which must be seized, or all will be lost: and to shut the door against free enquiry, whenever conscious the thing presented has defects in it, which time and investigation will probably discover. This has been the custom of tyrants and their dependants in all ages.

This matter is a little more difficult to put a finger on. Anyone on the losing side of an argument would like more time to convince his peers that there is a better course of action. Determining when a debate had been sufficiently argued is a situation that would paralyze any organization made up of more than one person. That said, legislation of unbelievable complexity and proportions is passed today with relative blinding speed. Find a victim, describe their condition as “miserable, wretched and despised” and you can easily whip the public into a pitchfork-wielding frenzy. The public will demand legislative action that is both immediate and comprehensive, consequences be damned. The most immediate example is the health insurance reform law, but that legislation will have plenty of company in the library of hastily written and poorly conceived laws passed over the years.

The plan of government now proposed is evidently calculated totally to change, in time, our condition as a people. Instead of being thirteen republics, under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government. Of this, I think, I shall fully convince you, in my following letters on this subject. This consolidation of the states has been the object of several men in this country for some time past. Whether such a change can ever be effected in any manner; whether it can be effected without convulsions and civil wars; whether such a change will not totally destroy the liberties of this country – time only can determine.

The Farmer, without the aid of a crystal ball, anticipates an event that will not occur for almost 90 years; the growth from the Constitution of a powerful central government and the trampling of state’s rights in a civil war. Specifically, he predicts wars; I hope he is wrong. Abraham Lincoln, long held as a champion for his Emancipation Proclamation, may ultimately be defined by his redefinition of the Federal government. By invading the South after its secession, he made it clear that the United States of America was no longer a collection of republics, but rather a single republic under one federal government. It has been accepted as a necessary evil that resulted in the undoing of the practice of slavery. It did nonetheless weaken the very foundation of our government and has sent us into a spiral of never-ending growth in the power of the Federal government.

Human nature with regard to public office had not changed in the hundreds of years leading up to the writing of this essay, nor has it changed in the hundreds of years since. To those who would argue that the Founding Fathers could not have anticipated the circumstances we face in the world today, I say they saw it more clearly than we do. The Founding Fathers possessed a very clear understanding of the dangers of centralized power, but like a weather-beaten vessel at sea, the Constitution needs time to refit and repair. This is best accomplished by a broader public awareness of the contents of the debate that surrounded the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. The Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers offer an incredible insight into the minds of the those who molded the Constitution.


Filed under: Nanny State, Regulation
Comments: None
 

Sarah BrodskyLessons From the Parents as Teachers Cuts
Posted at 8:25 am on April 23, 2010, by Sarah Brodsky

The State of Missouri has cut funding to its Parents as Teachers program. I hope the drop in funding will redirect Parents as Teachers to focus on people who need the most help.

Maybe I’m not a pure libertarian, but I’m actually not opposed to government programs that give poor people free stuff or try to improve the odds for children in bad situations. I’m even okay with limited home-visiting programs, as long as they’re voluntary (and Parents as Teachers is) and as long as there’s no better way to provide the services.

But Parents as Teachers, as it’s currently run here in Missouri, goes way beyond intervening with at-risk children. The program accepts children from wealthy homes; in some participating families, the parents are pediatricians. Parents as Teachers provides the same costly home-visiting services to people who own two cars and drive their kids to gymnastics every day as it does to people who don’t have transportation and really do need someone to come to their house.

Parents as Teachers also conducts research activities that do nothing to help the kids now enrolled in the program. For example, this blog post written by a participant mentions the questions Parents as Teachers asked her for a study about autism. Of course, there’s a need for research, but it’s not clear that it should be conducted by this publicly-funded program. For one thing, there are benefits to specialization; some programs concentrate on research, while others teach parents and distribute children’s books. Most programs can’t do both well. It’s also questionable whether research should be tied to programs that ostensibly support vulnerable people, opening up the possibility that participants will feel pressured to go along with the research because they want to continue receiving services.

Parents as Teachers should learn from the funding cuts that taxpayers won’t help it do everything for everyone. The program should target people who most need help–either through geographic boundaries, like the Harlem Children’s Zone or Kansas City’s Zone 27, or through income limits. It could also seek out more private donations, or charge wealthy participants for some services.


Filed under: Child Policy, Government Spending, Nanny State
Comments: None
 

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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