January 25, 2011

Exalting brainlessness is just good government policy

By Exalting brainlessness is just good government policy

Author:  Anne Hayes

  • In Oregon last year, Multnomah County officials shut down a 7 year-old's lemonade stand, because she did not have a $120 temporary restaurant license.
  • In Houston last month, health officials ordered a young couple to stop giving away free home-made hot meals to the homeless because they did not have a permit to operate their kitchen to serve meals "for public consumption."
  • In New Jersey, an 85 year old woman who missed her final $432 house payment because she was in the hospital was told by the bank to pay $5800 or risk foreclosure. She sued, instead.
  • In Idaho, two young boys selling pumpkins in front of their house to raise money so that they could participate in wrestling, were cited by a state tax collector for not having a permit.  Their mother subsequently sent a $40 payment to the State–which amounted to 20% of the boys' total take.

PLF has mentioned some of these stories in previous blogs here and here, pointing out the extreme extent to which various governmental bodies use regulations to stifle free enterprise, increase the cost of doing business generally, and protect existing businesses from entering the field to compete.  However, there is also something else going on.

Government has completely lost all sense of . . . sense.  Anybody with two functioning brain cells to rub together can distinguish between a little girl selling lemonade for some pocket change and Wolfgang Puck's latest venture.  Surely, even a government bureaucrat can tell the difference between someone who offers a hot meal to the homeless and the food-court at the local shopping mall.  And even tax collectors should be able to differentiate between a couple of kindergarteners selling a few pumpkins on their front porch with the local supermarket's produce section.

But actually . . . they can't.  Our elected officials have worked so hard in the last few decades to remove discretion and judgment from the operation of government that they are organizationally incapable of distinguishing among individuals and enterprises, notwithstanding glaringly obvious disparities apparent to everyone else.  Government officials are not allowed to exercise any judgment, for fear that they will exhibit some "bias" as to how the laws they administer are implemented.  You see, government officials simply cannot be trusted.   As a result, what we have is legislated and enforced stupidity–a policy with which few, if any, bureacrats seem to have a problem.

It is a mindset that has now invaded virtually every large government and corporate body–such as banks.  Thus, it never occurred to a single manager working at the bank that sued the poor old lady to simply call her up, find out that this problem was caused by a minor, forgiveable, and unfortunate oversight, collect the $432, maybe with a little late fee, and call it a day.  Probably, that would have violated some written bank "policy," supported by some federal regulation against discrimination in lending.  Intead, the whole apparatus of laws, rules, procedures, and regulations was brought to bear, such that, instead, the bank instituted foreclosure proceedings and sent her a nasty-gram demanding $5800 to pay for of all their needless expenses in order to settle the whole mess. 

And while we may all be heartened and gratified to learn that this granny with gumption refused to roll over and is fighting back (and winning), let's not forget that this whole episode now involves a few pricey lawyers, as well as publicly-funded courtrooms and judges, in order to be resolved.  We are all paying a hefty premium for institutional mindlessness.

Moreover, this government-promoted policy of blind ignorance is not only toleated, it is now considered a virtue.  Thus, TSA officials treat 4-month old babies in car seats precisely the same as a 25 year-old swarthy, bearded man sporting a copy of the Koran under his arm.  And before charges of "bigot" escape anyone's lips, it is not that all such men are or should be presumed to be guilty.  The point is:  is there really NO discernable difference between the two in the minds of the government bureaucrats responsible for our security?  The irony is complete:  Arizona law enforcement is currently under fire by the federal government for fear they may violating someone's civil rights by "profiling" who might be an illegal alien; but that same government has no difficulty with intrusive and offensive searches, so long as officials violate EVERYONE'S civil rights indiscriminately.

PLF clients are often caught in this Looking Glass world, where government policy seems to bear no relationship to rational and clear thinking.  Bob Slobe owns property in Sacramento on which he cannot build anything, because whatever he does may harm "endangered" beetles and the elderberry bushes they call "home" . . . so homeless people repeatedly trespass and camp out on his vacant land, deface it and cover it with litter and other debris and waste, which he then has to go in and clean up.  Mike and Chantell Sackett can't build a modest 3-bedroom home on their 1/2 acre plot in a rural Idaho subdivision . . . because it may contain "wetlands" according to a law that was enacted to prevent the dumping of hazardous chemicals into our nation's rivers.  Is this really what these laws were intended to do?  Are we happy our tax dollars are promoting this?

Regulatory laws are written blandly and generally because the legislators who draft them know they cannot conceive of all the possible circumstances that the bureacrats who implement them will encounter.  Moreover, they address topics–like water quality, air quality, and wildlife biology–that these legislators and their staff haven't the foggiest interest in, let alone intelligent understanding of.  Essentially, they write laws that might as well say: "Oh, just go take care of this problem somehow."  In point of fact, that might be a more satisfactory way to write these laws, because what we have instead are tomes of legislative gobbledygook, imbued with mountains of "safeguards" to prevent bureaucrats from utilizing their own (possibly rational) judgment in any of these processes. The result is predictable, and predictably dismal:  one-size-fits-all regulations in which the 7-year-old's lemonade stand is treated as though it is the functional equivalent of Pepsico.

Both our President and California's reigning legislator have recently lamented the wastefulness and expense of our regulatory regimes insofar as they encourage unemployment rates to remain at staggeringly high levels.  It would be nice to share their rosy vision that a few tweaks here and there will simply solve these problems and get our economy back on track.  They won't.  Until the government recognizes that it is not misuse, but instead the blind but utterly faithful implementation of well-meaning laws, that is causing the vast majority of the problems with our regulatory environment, we will continue to spend as many resources on stupid ends as on legitimate ends.  

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