Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.

The Nanny State & A Regulated Society Archive



January 2017



Three Cheers for Process Reform

Written by , Posted in Legislation, Liberty & Limited Government, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

Outside of election season, few people really pay attention to what happens in Washington DC. Start talking about “process reform” and the average citizen completely tunes out. That’s unfortunate because the how of policymaking is often more important than the who.

Public choice teaches us to look at the incentives and institutional constraints placed on elected (and unelected) officials in order to understand how they are likely to behave. This is of practical import. If we want to compel government to live within its means, for instance, then applying public choice theory we know to direct our efforts toward the creation of a debt break or other spending cap, rather than naively thinking it is sufficient simply to elect politicians claiming they will be more responsible. The reason the latter doesn’t work is because politicians are incentivized to seek reelection, and showering various constituencies with taxpayer dollars remains the best way to go about it (we could drill down deeper, if we desired, into things like the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs to further understand why electoral mechanisms are unlikely to enforce spending restraint).

There are a great many reforms that are needed if the nation’s many policy-related problems are ever to be solved. Thankfully, there seems to be enough awareness of this fact that some key process reforms are moving forward. One of them is the REINS Act, which was passed by the House last week, and attempts to solve the issue of excessively expensive and numerous regulations. Recognizing the fact that career bureaucrats have an incentive to grow their power and to ignore the costs imposed on society by doing so, the REINS Act requires Congress and the president to approve regulations with significant economic impact before they are finalized.

It understandably has the left freaking out, as the REINS Act would return to Congress a bit of the lawmaking power that has long been delegated to unaccountable regulators–power which the left has exploited to insert government into every aspect of our lives. And while Congress carries its own set of perverse incentives, looping legislators into the rule-making process adds an obstacle to the promulgation of new regulations that should hopefully prevent some of the more onerous and destructive rules from ever coming to fruition.

The REINS Act reforms Congress as much as it does regulatory agencies. Under the current system, legislators can hide from electoral accountability by delegating more and more of their responsibilities to unelected bureaucrats, who they then campaign against. By restoring the role of Congress in filling in the details for new laws, legislators cannot as easily duck electoral responsibility for agency actions.

Other regulatory reform efforts are also proceeding concurrently. But there are other areas that can improve from process reforms as well.

One of those is the electoral system. There’s been renewed interest in the topic post-election, though most of it is motivated by the particular partisan circumstance of recent elections and directed in unhelpful ways.

Hillary supporters are focused on the fact that she won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college. Ignoring that we don’t actually know how the campaign would have unfolded were the goal different from the beginning, they are focused on the wrong reform. The real tragedy of 2016 is that despite two major party candidates with historic unfavorables, and an electorate in which a plurality of 43% choose not to belong to either major party, the major party nominees still secured 94.3% of the vote.

Why did this happen? Because the voting system we have chosen compels it to. See Duverger’s law for the full explanation, but the short of it is that our first-past-the-post voting system (pick one, winner take all) incentives voters to vote against their most hated candidate instead of for their most liked one.

Interestingly, this same election also produced a tiny step toward a new (and I’d argue better) system. Maine passed a ballot initiative to implement ranked-choice voting for all statewide elections (though not federal House, Senate, or presidential campaigns). It works by having voters rank their top choices in order. If no candidate breaks 50 percent, the candidate with the least first choice votes is dropped and the ballots recounted. This continues to happen until a candidate reaches a majority. If such an approach had been used in the presidential election, as an example, voters could have supported a candidate outside the Republican-Democrat duopoly without fear that they were inadvertently supporting Hillary or Trump depending on which they loathed more.

But that’s not our voting system, and so we are left with the most unpopular president ever elected. Process is destiny.




February 2015



Safety is Overrated

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Culture & Society, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

Modern obsession with risk avoidance is threatening our liberty and harming the development of future generations. I explain in my most recent column at EveryJoe:

Society overrates the prevalence of criminal and physical dangers to children, so parents fail to realize that it is the relative safety of their own children in their day-to-day activities that even allows them to obsess about the smallest of dangers. The playground equipment that many of us grew up on and survived just fine, for instance, is being torn down or cemented into place by panicked governments, and replaced with safety-first boregrounds that no child wants to use.

Aggressively trying to eliminate all risk that children face is likely to create more problems than it solves. Overzealous government bureaucrats and helicopter parents that refuse to grant their children any independence are doing the next generation a disservice. Obsessing over even tiny risks leads to decisions that deprive children not only of fun, but of opportunities to learn independence, confidence, and self-reliance.

It’s not just little kids we’re coddling, either. Universities – once a bastion for free wheeling debate, intellectual confrontation, and experimentation – are increasingly stifling debate and insulating students from any difficult experience by insisting on so-called “safe spaces.”

Today, any time an event features a speaker that doesn’t toe the politically correct, “progressive” line, it faces ritual denunciation by students and faculty alike. Assuming a speaker is not outright disinvited, the event may be accompanied by school administered “safe spaces” and counseling services for student traumatized by the mere presence of different views, as happened last year at Brown when a debate participant had the audacity to oppose the dubious rape culture narrative.

You can read the rest here.



August 2014



Risks Come in Many Forms

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Culture & Society, Foreign Affairs & Policy, Gun Rights, Liberty & Limited Government, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

The New York Times editorial board has some sound advice for Great Britain as it worries about the threat of home grown terrorists. It’s a serious problem, and one which the UK has largely invited on itself through a failed experiment in cultural appeasement that has only served to embolden extremism. Be that as it may, NYT editors are right to warn against overreactions that undermine civil rights by concluding that, “scrapping civil liberties should not be the first line of defense in a democracy.”

Terrorists pose a safety risk, and mitigating that risk should be done with respect to civil liberties rather than trampling them. But there are a great many risks in society, and unfortunately the NYT editorial board fails to consistently apply this principle on other issues. They have no problem curtailing rights for the illusion of security when doing so confirms their ideological biases, such as limiting speech in the name of removing money from politics, or scrapping the Second Amendment in the name of reducing violence.

In fact, just a day before sternly warning the Brits against overreacting to their homegrown extremism problem, the very same New York Times editorial board overreacted to a single gun accident caused by the irresponsibility of parents and an instructor that allowed a young girl who couldn’t handle the weapons and its kickback to shoot an Uzi, ultimately resulting in the instructor’s death. Not only did they use the unusual incident to finger wag at defenders of the Second Amendment and note in horror all the various ways in which gun enthusiasts enjoy their hobby, but they also demanded the restriction of rights in response. Citing a similar incident over half a decade ago (giving indication to  how rare these events are) where a young child accidentally killed himself at a gun range, the NYT editors praised his state of Connecticut for reacting by banning access to certain guns even at gun ranges for those under 16, regardless of the level of supervision, precautions taken, or capabilities of the shooter. They then lamented that there will be no “swift action in Arizona, where the gun culture is deeply entrenched.”

Rights are precarious things. They are at their most vulnerable when the populace is scared. The New York Times recognizes this when it comes to foreign threats, but fails to understand that domestic panics over extremely low risks of harm are just as dangerous.



March 2014



Weiner Reveals Progressivism’s Anti-Progress Economic Agenda

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Government Meddling, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

I promised myself I wouldn’t give any attention to Anthony Weiner in his new capacity as Business Insider columnist after the increasingly awful outlet’s decision to give the indelibly awful Weiner yet another public forum. But his inaugural column provides so perfect an illustration of the regressive positions of ironically so-called progressives on matters economic that I cannot resist.

Dipping his toe, and gratefully not other parts of his over documented anatomy, into the recent debate over whether Tesla motors has the right to sell their own product without first going through a government enforced middle man, Weiner comes down firmly against the interests of consumers, but not only that, against the very idea of economic progress. He says:

In Tesla’s case, some might consider bans on direct auto sales to be part of a protectionist regime set up by a powerful lobby—neighborhood car dealers—and unchallenged by a lazy industry that didn’t want to antagonize its sales force. Still, dismissing all existing regulations out of hand without recognizing them as the product of reasoning and careful consideration isn’t the answer.

Tesla and these other tech disruptors might want to put more of their energy into finding ways to fit their innovations into existing regulations.

…In situations where that’s not possible, why don’t these founders and tech executives focus on getting wider public support or convincing lawmakers their causes are just? Instead, they seem to show up expecting the world to be wowed by their shiny new companies and losing it when people don’t get out of the way. Gnashing of teeth via press release doesn’t make the case where it counts. If you want to be in the business of selling great cars, there may be more productive ways to spend your time than bitching about the laws that the majority have passed and reaffirmed from the time of the Model T.

If I didn’t know better and naively thought that political words still had meaning, I might be surprised to hear such conservative rhetoric from someone who proudly and loudly claims a progressive label. But modern progressivism is no longer about tearing down the existing order standing in the way of human progressive (well, they never truly were, but that’s another matter) because they are that order, and it is they who are standing in the way of progress. Innovations do not occur through the careful consideration of government bureaucrats and empowered regulators as Weiner fantasizes, but rather at the hands of “tech disruptors” who see the faults in the current order and move decisively to excise them.  Anthony Weiner wants Telsa to properly prostrate itself before the political elites, grease some wheels, and help keep Anthony Weiner and his friends in the social driver’s seat by working within a dysfunctional system for no other reason than that it is run by his compatriots and benefits the same.

Modern progressivism is about power and control, and modern progressives like Anthony Weiner will defend the political power to control your lives in every instance where it is threatened, because what progressives revealed once they finally had the power they long lusted for was that it was never simply sought as a means, but always as an end unto itself.



January 2014



Notable Quotations

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Economics & the Economy, Free Markets, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

Simon Lester, “The Good Old Days of Global Poverty:”

Protectionism takes a lot of money from everyone, in order to give concentrated benefits to a small group of politically connected interest groups. This is the kind of policy that is usually condemned by both the left and right. In the case of the trade debate, however, some well-respected opinion leaders seem OK with such policies. Why is that? My best guess is that it taps into an emotional “us versus them” worldview. It isn’t really about economics at all. It’s about patriotism and nationalism. “They” are bad. “We” are good. So let’s punish them, even if in doing so we are really punishing us.

Jacob Sullum, “Do You Drink Too Much? Don’t Ask the CDC:”

Why does the CDC say “at least 38 million” Americans drink too much? Because it maintains that “drinking too much” includes not just so-called binge drinking but several other categories as well. If you are a man who consumes 15 or more drinks in a week or a woman who consumes eight or more, you drink too much. …If you are a woman, the CDC does not want to hear about how you limit yourself to one drink every day except Saturday, when you have two, thereby exceeding the government’s arbitrary limit. …And don’t even try to point out the lack of evidence that light to moderate drinking during pregnancy harms fetuses. The CDC has decreed that all these patterns of drinking are excessive, and its only challenge now is convincing the rest of us.

Colin Grabow, “If You Think Communism Is Bad For People, Check Out What It Did To The Environment:”

In addition to being an advocate for an ideology directly responsible for tens of millions of non-war deaths and untold human misery, Myerson has revealed himself as something of an ignoramus concerning communism’s shocking record on environmental issues. Not only a blight on the human condition, communism’s impact on the planet’s ecology has proven consistently ghastly.




December 2013



Overgovernment: Foreign Follies Edition

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Economics & the Economy, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

Federal, state and local governments within the United States are all prone to overgovernment, and the problem has certainly gotten worse as government has grown in recent years. But they still lack in bureaucratic prowess compared to their foreign counterparts, as evidenced in part by these two recent stories on international governmental excess.

In France, kindness is a fine-able offense. Or at least it is for bar owners who allow their customers to demonstrate consideration by bringing empty glasses back to the bar:

French officials have fined a pub in Brittany €9,000 for “undeclared labour” after a customer returned some empty glasses to the bar.

For customers at the Mamm-Kounifl concert-café in Locmiquélic, carrying drinks trays and used glasses back to the bar was a polite tradition.

But for social security agency URSAFF, it was also an infringement of labour laws because customers were acting like waiters, French local newspaper Le Télégramme reported.

Surprisingly, some commentators on the story actually sided with the government! They share the fallacious reasoning behind the law, which supposedly exists to protect labor, i.e. jobs. Doing a task that another could be paid to do, in other words, is seen as a threat to their employment. But where does one draw the line with this sort of thinking? Should I be fined for mowing my own lawn instead of hiring a lawn care service? For cleaning my own house instead of hiring a maid? Or, in the case of New Jersey, pumping my own gas? Any activity we engage in for ourselves could be performed by another, thus creating a “job.” But does pursuing employment growth in this fashion make economic sense?

Ultimately, what this comes down to is an erroneous understanding many have regarding the nature of employment. Jobs don’t exist to fulfill demand for employment. Jobs exist when something needs doing. Production is the goal and employment is a byproduct. After all, if we could produce all that we needed without working, would that not be the ideal world? Reducing productivity to increase employment thus defeats the purpose of work and makes us all unnecessarily poorer in the process.

Labor is finite, while that which can be labored over is for all practical purposes infinite. The challenge, and where governments typically fail and thereby cause unemployment, is in having a system which encourages the entrepreneurial exploration of new products and services. Innovations that enhance productivity, whether it be ATM’s, automated cashiers, or even the realization that customers can return their own empty glasses (nevermind that such hardly represents the sum total of a server’s job), are not the cause of long-term unemployment. Innovations that allow us to make more for less, or free labor from doing one task so that it may be allowed to do another instead, make us richer and should be encouraged. Discouraging innovations in order to “protect jobs” is economic backwardness.

Moving from France to Denmark, we find a case of excessive nannyism (Hat-tip: Cato@Liberty):

…scientists have now discovered that too much of the most commonly used type of cinnamon, cassia, can cause liver damage thanks to high levels of coumarin, a natural ingredient found in the spice.

…As a result, the EU has laid down guidelines for the maximum content of coumarin in foodstuffs – 50mg per kg of dough in traditional or seasonal foods that are only consumed occasionally, and 15mg per kg of dough in what it terms as everyday fine baked goods.

Last month, the Danish food authority ruled that the nation’s famous cinnamon swirls were neither traditional nor seasonal, thus limiting the quantity of cinnamon that bakers are allowed to use, placing the pastry at risk – and sparking a national outcry that could be dubbed the great Danish bake strop.

The president of the Danish Bakers’ Association, Hardy Christensen, said: “We’ve been making bread and cakes with cinnamon for 200 years. Then suddenly the government says these pastries are not traditional? I have been a baker for 43 years and never come across anything like this – it’s crazy. Using lower amounts of the spice will change the distinctive flavour and produce less tasty pastries. Normally, we do as we’re told by the government and say OK, but now it’s time to take a stand. Enough is enough.”

Anything taken in sufficient quantities can be hazardous to one’s health. This is especially true of government.



November 2013



Overgovernment: Total Recall Edition

Written by , Posted in Big Government, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

General Government Motors is recalling 18,941 Chevy Camaros for violating Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208, reports Heritage’s The Foundry. Surely the issue with the cars must be one of life and death, and for which we should profusely thank our government overloads for saving us from. Right?

Does anyone believe that? Surely not anyone who has followed the Overgovernment series. No, the horrible violation for which GM had to recall almost 20,000 cars at significant expense was for airbag warning labels that might peel.

This is no small matter, evidently. If the air bag warning label detaches from the visor, the driver and front seat passenger may not be warned of the risks of air bag deployment. Or so goes the reasoning for the adhesion edict. But even when warned via visor label, a driver and front seat passenger have little choice about air bag deployment, since the potentially dangerous equipment is required by the NHTSA itself.

In other words, General Motors is required under NHTSA rules to initiate a recall of 18,941 vehicles because of a danger created by other NHTSA rules. Perhaps it is regulators who should come with a warning label.

The nanny state, ladies and gentlemen.



October 2013



Overgovernment: When Nannies Collide

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Culture & Society, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

This episode of Overgovernment brings us Nanny on Nanny action. When anti-Obesity nannies meet “for the children!” nannies in a fight to the death, who shall leave their field of battle victorious? Let’s find out:

…Different agencies often act at cross-purposes with each other.

For a relatively minor but remarkably revealing example of the latter, look at the story of the U.S. Postal Service destroying an entire run of stamps  “after receiving concerns from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition over alleged “unsafe” acts depicted on three of the stamps.”

What were these unsafe activities?  Binge drinking?  Smoking?  Juggling machetes while skydiving?  Attempting to purchase an attractive health insurance plan without the firm guidance of government “navigators?”

No, the stamps were printed to honor First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” vanity project for youthful physical fitness… The three Stamps of Doom depicted “a cannonball dive, skateboarding without kneepads and a headstand without a helmet,” according to the Postal Blog.

Did you know your child was required to don a helmet before performing a headstand?  Well, now you do.  And if you’re going to let them climb on a skateboard without kneepads, you might as well order up a kid-sized coffin and start making funeral arrangements.

The USPS apparently also looked darkly upon stamps showing “a batter without a batting helmet, a girl balancing on a slippery rock, and a soccer player without kneepads or shin pads,” but they weren’t horrifying enough to trigger the kill order.

In this epic battles of the nannies, the nannies won. America, as usual, lost.



October 2013



End Times for the Welfare State

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Health Care, Welfare & Entitlements, Liberty & Limited Government, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

A recent letter to the The New York Times:

To the Editor:

Stephen D. King correctly observes that the United States and many other so-called advanced economies are looking forward to a dismal future (“When Wealth Disappears,” October 6). Unfortunately, he dances around and at best merely alludes to the root cause of the problem.

While recent years have seen rather dismal economic growth, the fact remains that people today are, by and large, wealthier than ever before. Levels of comfort and convenience – from air conditioning to machine washers to access to multiple vehicles per family – once reserved for the wealthiest few are now common even for the least among us. In asserting that “we are reaching the end times for Western affluence,” King thus fails to be sufficiently precise in his analysis. It is the Western welfare state whose affluence has reached its limits.

While the last century has witnessed tremendous strides economically, with incredible new technologies revolutionizing how we live, work and play, it has also seen an ever increasing share of those gains diverted to the public sector. It is for this reason that King’s prescriptions are just a step in the right direction. For our nation to avoid becoming another Greece, politicians henceforth must refrain from promising the fruit of another’s labor as a means for enhancing their own political power.

Brian Garst
Director of Government Affairs
Center for Freedom and Prosperity



July 2013



Overgovernment: Weed Wackos Edition

Written by , Posted in Big Government, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

Chicago is hung up on weeds. First, there’s this story of a man fined for picking dandelions to eat:

Most agree, dandelions are a notorious weed. But some recognize that dandelion greens can contribute to a tasty and nutritious meal.

Among the fans of the food is John Taris, a 75-year-old retiree who lives in the Chicago area with his wife on a $1,500-a-month social security payment. When the couple’s food supply was a bit low recently, he volunteered to go pick some to provide a vegetable, writes columnist John Kass in the Chicago Tribune (sub. req.).

But, caught in the act of picking the weeds by a Cook County Forest Preserve cop, he was issued a $75 ticket. His court date is July 9.

A spokeswoman for the forest preserve district noted that foraging is prohibited there and called the practice “unsustainable, especially when it’s done for commercial purposes,” the article reports.

I’m not sure what “commercial purposes” the government may have manufactured here. I imagine it’s being used in a similar fashion as “intent to distribute” is when a suspect is caught with a small amount of drugs – in other words, without any regard to the actual facts. It’s all fine to protect public lands from succumbing to the tragedy of the commons, but it’s freaking dandelions.

The second story also comes from Chicago. This time it’s a retired teacher fined $600 dollars for growing weeds.

A retired Chicago teacher had wanted to appeal the $600 fine she got last year for growing “weeds” in her prize-winning Chicago garden. (The prize, which was presented personally by former Mayor Richard Daley, includes a photo of Kathy Cummings’ yard.)

But it wasn’t until Cummings chatted with a neighbor that she was able to find an attorney to represent her in the case.

…Her complaint, which was filed last month, contends that the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague on its face and has been arbitrarily applied in violation of equal protection and due process in order to increase city revenue. The ordinance bans vegetation taller than 10 inches that isn’t maintained, but doesn’t define what is, and isn’t, a weed.

Is it just me, or does Chicago have some weird fascination with weeds? Whatever the case, there is clearly overgovernment at work.