"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Free To Take Risks

One summer my family and I were vacationing in Tuscany, and often went to the beach at Lake Trasimeno.  At the end of a long pier, the ferry boats which plied between the islands in the lake docked for a few minutes to let off and pick up passengers. As soon as the boat left, and even before the propeller wash had stopped churning the water, a bunch of Italian boys jumped in, horse-played around in the warm water, then climbed up the pilings for another dive. When the next ferry boat was within a few hundred yards of the dock, the boys all skedaddled and shimmied quickly up the pylons. 

When not in Italy, I often took my young children to the Bethesda (MD) public pool.  It was usually crowded and not very much fun for adults, but kids loved it.  Every few minutes, however, a lifeguard would blow  his whistle and barked out commands to transgressing little kiddies.  “No running”, bellowed one. “No jumping”, yelled another. “No walking there”, screamed another.  Welcome to America, the land of regulation. We Americans like to think we live in the freest country in the world, but when it comes to government intrusion into our lives, we are one of the worst.

In the good old days, Italians parked anywhere and pulled their little Cinquecentos up onto curbs, sidewalks, traffic islands, and shoulders.  Yes, it was sometimes hard to negotiate these informal parking lots, but drivers understood the rules and always gave leeway, if only a few inches, to other cars.  There were no speed traps in Italy, only carabinieri who would flag down cars randomly to check for license and registration, but who let cars whizz past with impunity.

Not so in the US. Parking regulations are everywhere, and there is always a cop lurking behind the bushes.

I admit that at times in India I wished there were at least some traffic rules, and at least the occasional enforcement of them, because driving in Delhi was a free-for-all, roundabouts a circus, and free competition between cars, trucks, and bullock carts the norm.  However, I am all for less regulation on the road.  Most people know what a safe speed is and respect it; and will speed up if the official limit has been set too low.  The old adage is that speed kills, but only maybe:

In stark contrast to common sense the autobahn, where some drivers exceed 200 mph, is relatively safe. The fatality rate on the German autobahn is actually much lower than that observed on the US interstate system. The Economist reports that per every 100,000 people under the age of 24, in the US nearly 20 die in auto accidents compared to approximately 7 in Germany. Even with this low amount of deaths, one would assume that the "dangerous" autobahn accounted for most of the German accidents. Yet, in 2009 accidents on the autobahn accounted for less than 10%. (Think Transatlantic, 4.12)

There are many reasons for this from the more restrictive policies regarding drivers’ licenses, to better road and vehicle design; but all factors have been deliberately controlled to allow freedom to the German driver.  In the US, the argument goes, extensive police presence is required to protect drivers from themselves – they don’t know how to drive, many cars are wobbly old Buicks, and the roads are beat to shit. Better to use police-state tactics rather than demand better drivers, cars, and roads.

America would like to be a risk-free nation.  Not only are there myriad regulations to enforce ‘proper’ behavior – no running, jumping, smoking, speeding, carrying an open container, jaywalking, parking too close to the curb, talking too loudly – but there are measures taken to eliminate risk altogether.  There is no way that a child can get hurt on a playground these days because all features are risk free.  Slides are plastic and gentle, see-saws are gone, monkey bars are low to the ground, swings have built-in governors to limit arc, etc. Bicycle helmets are required even for kiddies on three-wheelers.

Eliminating risk, it is thought, is part of the life and pursuit of happiness part of the Founding Fathers vision.  If you don’t smoke; reduce your intake of red meat, fat, salt, and sugar; buckle up; cross only at the crosswalk; and mind your P’s and Q’s, you will live a happier, longer life.

Of course, everything comes with a price, and a society which is focused on reducing or eliminating risk for its citizens and its soldiers forces a timid, anti-entrepreneurial, defensive attitude and posture.

Worst of all is the increase of federal government regulation – the kind that stifles business and constricts society into a law-compliance-enforcement-punishment cycle.  It is no surprise that America is a litigious society, given the many laws, rules, and regulations which make it necessary and easier to sue. All this regulation, ‘progressive’ proponents say, is to prevent us from taking risks which will endanger ourselves and others. Capitalism is a free-swinging affair, people are pretty dumb, and without regulation, there would only be the law of the jungle. There is a fine balance between too little regulation which encourages abuse, and too much which stifles innovation and risk.

As I suggested earlier, we Americans just think we are free; but if we were to take a good, hard look at how regulated all aspects of our lives are, we would be forced to admit that we are not.

The only good news here is that we are not as bad as some countries, like France. Edward Cody, writing in the Washington Post (4.17.13) gives the following examples of regulation run riot:

1) All signs whose posts arise from the sidewalk must be replaced, freeing the sidewalk to a width of 1.28 meters to allow for the passage of two wheelchairs going in opposite directions.

2) Similarly, letterboxes or other wall-mounted boxes must not stick out over the sidewalk, lest a blind person walk by and bump into them.

3) Only a government-certified specialist may open fuse boxes or change light bulbs on city-owned property, which means in practical terms that City Hall would have to call in an electrician every time a bulb goes out.

4) The school cook must precisely divide meals so that kindergarten pupils eat only half an egg, primary school pupils eat one egg and junior high or high school students eat an egg and a half. Other foods must be weighed to comply with similarly detailed norms — 180 grams of paella in kindergarten, for instance, and 250 in primary school.

5) Access for handicapped people must be guaranteed in all public buildings, no matter when they were built, with entrance ramps at carefully measured grades. A nearby chateau transformed into a hotel and restaurant would have to destroy or cover centuries-old stone stairs to comply.

6) The ramp leading up to an unusual bell tower on Albaret-Sainte-Marie’s 16th-century stone church, which has a dramatic view over the Truyere Valley, must be replaced because its bars are horizontal and rules stipulate they must be vertical.

7) A five-page directive orders the local City Hall to take detailed steps to restore unusual pearl-bearing mussels in the Truyere River, which have been extinct for decades.

The French Republic still believes that government has the role, the responsibility, and the duty to create a society in which there will be no risk and perfect harmony; one in which advantages for the few are are lessened in order to increase minor advantages for the many.  It is a Socialist utopian vision of a perfect, harmonious world created by the benevolent State.

The regulations almost always flow from a desire to meet recent and broadly accepted social goals, such as environmental protection, accident prevention or access for the disabled. But as lawmakers pass more legislation and bureaucrats scribble more implementation orders, specialists say, the result looks like a vast straitjacket holding back economic activity at a time when Europe needs it most.

Regulations, like the bureaucracies they fuel, have their own organic life – there is no stopping them as they grow, multiply, and spread.  Once you have decided to regulate one aspect of the road, why not add another rule to make driving even safer.  Or one environmental regulation, one OSHA rule, one workplace protection.  Regulations will only slow when citizens realize that their freedom to risk – i.e. their free, independent, spontaneous, and unfettered choices – is being compromised. In France, the regulatory system has grown so much that it is now a Byzantine tangle from which it will be nearly impossible to disentangle the individual Frenchman.

Another source of overregulation is the “mille-feuille” of government, the layers that start with municipalities, then cantons, and on to inter-communal bodies, departments, regions, parliamentary representation and ministries. Each level plays a role in imposing norms, sometimes contradictory. But with various government bodies providing 23 percent of the jobs in France, talk of reducing the overlap is largely ignored.

Such over-regulation has not surprisingly stunted economic growth at all levels of government:

Perhaps more seriously, recently revised rules for building permits have imposed so many additional requirements that construction has been slowed to a trickle since the beginning of the year just as authorities are trying desperately to find jobs for the unemployed, Therond said.

Looked at another way, we will only resist constantly increasing and invasive regulation when we realized the regimented life, the risk-free, sedate, predictable, life is less worth living than the one in which we are challenged, aspirational, and undaunted. Speaking of France again, Cody noted:

[One French expert] said the problem has grown acute because France increasingly has a mind-set in which all risks must be eliminated, what is called “the principle of precaution.” “But you just can’t do that,” he objected.

For all the vitriol poured on the Tea Party by the ‘progressive’ Left, it is responsible for a much needed focus on two important issues: 1) reducing government spending; and 2) reducing and eliminating unnecessary regulation.

In a related article in the Washington Post today 94.17.13) Jim Tankersley and Dylan Matthews have expressed the need for evaluation of government programs. Why should the taxpayer continue to fund such programs if no one has any idea of their success rate, whether or not the level of investment was right, too little, or too much; and whether or not the program should have been undertaken in the first place.  The same case can be made for government regulations – i.e. do they result in the effect intended?  What is their real cost to individuals and the economy? Are there non-regulatory ways to effect the same behavior anticipated by government regulators?

It is time to argue forcibly for a rollback of government regulations.  Once we are weaned from the biggie federal intrusions on our economic life, we might be tempted to erase some of more egregious attempts to engineer a more perfect society, and live and let live.  

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