I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.In a sense, this is unfair - there are a lot of solid folks working for the government, doing solid work. They do want to help. I know; I used to be one of those folks.
Quite frankly, I think that I did help, back at Three Letter Intelligence Agency, during the Cold War. And while I didn't carry a rifle, SIGINT and ELINT are important. So is COMSEC. It takes a lot of people, who don't get recognized, or thanked, but without whom we never would have come out of that strange, twilight conflict right side up.
There's no doubt that most of what gets proposed - we're talking government now - actually has tangible benefit to society. Sure there's the overhead of earmarks and the rest of the graft, but the output is usually something that's worthwhile. For a while, I used to think that this was the actual problem - that this was why government was always pushed to expand.
I think that the problem is more subtle. Cost-Benefit Analysis is a well understood discipline in engineering. It's hard to get right, which is why so many businesses go out of business. It's doubly hard in the public sector. The costs are almost never estimated correctly: Exhibit A is Massachusetts' new "Universal" health care that doesn't remotely cover everyone, but which is so mind-numbingly expensive that the only thing "universal" is its unpopularity.
Benefits are always oversold, too, so the entire analysis needs to be taken with a healthy additional discount for elected official's posturing. For a while, I used to think that this was the problem. While it's closer, that's not exactly it, either.
Like the Founding Fathers, we can't see where things will lead. Economists have know about the Tragedy of the Commons for centuries, that common resources will be overused to the point of destruction. Each small additional use gives a tangible use, now. Any negative effect is hard to predict - how bad, when, or who will be hurt.
The Cost-Benefit analysis falls apart, and so we get completely unexpected, and completely horrible results. This is the problem with creeping government.
Gordon Clark revolutionized surfing in the 1960s, with a new type of surfboard that was fiberglass (for strength) built around a foam core (for buoyancy). Think Beach Boys (or The Challengers, if you want something less squeeky-clean). In a lot of ways, if you think "1960s California", you think of the surf scene.
Gordon Clark is out of business now. It's not that he made bad business decisions; Orange County, the State of California, and the Environmental Protection Agency put him out of business:
All gone now, because of environmental and work place regulations. Was each regulation inspired by the desire to make things better? Sure. Nobody thought in 1975 that we'd end up here. Each individual regulation was a small nibble on the Common Pasture, the Town Green of a vibrant society. Now it's brown and barren.
To sum this up no one in the United States or for that matter the rest of the world uses equipment and a process like mine. It is very unique and there was nothing on earth ever built this way before.
This is just an extension of the methods everyone used when the first foam boards were built. I continued merrily along assuming this was the way things worked. No one copied much of my process or equipment and it was very successful. I used no outside engineering firms or other experts for the majority of Clark Foam.
The Federal Environmental Protection Agency used lawyers to prepare their citation. They used the word “standards” a lot. I finally realized with shock that the EPA has determined that my equipment does not meet acceptable or accepted “standards”.
Didn't see that coming.
I've linked several times before to an old post by Megan McArdle that illustrates this. It's well worth your time, but the pertinent part is that the institution of marriage turned out to be much more fragile than anyone imagined:
Like the southern Californian surfing scene, it took a long time for the common pasture that was marriage's place in society to be trampled bare, and it was all done with absolutely the best intentions.
Public housing [in the 1950s] was, in short, a place full of functioning families.
Now, in the late fifties, a debate began over whether to extend benefits to the unmarried. It was unfair to stigmatise unwed mothers. Why shouldn't they be able to avail themselves of the benefits available to other citizens? The brutal societal prejudice against illegitimacy was old fashioned, bigoted, irrational.
But if you give unmarried mothers money, said the critics, you will get more unmarried mothers.
Ridiculous, said the proponents of the change. Being an unmarried mother is a brutal, thankless task. What kind of idiot would have a baby out of wedlock just because the state was willing to give her paltry welfare benefits?
People do all sorts of idiotic things, said the critics. If you pay for something, you usually get more of it.
C'mon said the activists. That's just silly. I just can't imagine anyone deciding to get pregnant out of wedlock simply because there are welfare benefits available.
Didn't see that coming, either.
It's important to reiterate: with the exception of the expected level of graft by elected officials (smaller) and inefficiency of the bureaucracy (larger), these are good people who want to do good things. They want to leave society a better place.
They also don't know as much as they think that they do. They will look at you blankly if you ask them what the unanticipated consequences of their proposal is:
So if you were actually able to ban all legal guns, how would that reduce crime?Dead homeowners are part of the over grazed Common Pasture of society. Women and kids, too. So are higher levels of gun violence.
[Lots of over-estimated benefits and under-estimated costs redacted]
OK, what will this do to the rate of women killed by abusive boyfriends or ex-husbands, who can't get a gun to defend themselves. What does your study predict for numbers?
Who gets hurt? This question needs to be asked any time someone proposes one tiny, incremental, almost unnoticeable further harvest of the Common Weal. Nobody is not an acceptable answer - someone always gets hurt, intentionally or not. Maybe this cost is outweighed by the benefits, maybe it isn't. But it's never zero.
Personally, I'm not willing to believe that someone who hasn't thought through potentially catastrophic consequences is either nicer or smarter than I am.
UPDATE 14 January 2009 07:45: Welcome folks visiting via Lissa. Thanks for the link, Lissa. Feel free to take a look around.