Author: Anne Hayes
Much has been written about the unintended consequences of laws, but another aspect that is not talked about as much is when laws actually lead to the creation of more laws or regulations, or when a law results in greater harm than the law itself was intended to alleviate.
Some that come to mind are the EPA's bans on various substances. For example, halon, a very effective chemical used in fire extinguishers, was banned some years ago, because, according to the EPA, it depleted ozone. Actually, to be more accurate, halon is not completely banned, which, in some ways, is worse. You see, the EPA's regulation banned only the creation and importation of halon, but allows the use of recycled halon, which makes the regulatory scheme very onerous. If you want to read EPA's mind-numbing explanation of halon regulations, you are welcome to do so.
But the really interesting part, if you find such things interesting, is that EPA did not ban halon where its use is "critical," and I quote here from EPA itself:
A use is considered "critical" when a need exists "to minimize damage due to fires, explosions, or other extinguishing agents, which would otherwise result in serious impairment of an essential service to society or pose an unacceptable threat to life, the environment, or national security even though all other appropriate fire protection measures have been taken."
Come again? You see, EPA basically concedes that halon is enormously effective at doing what it is supposed to do: put out fires. In addition, halon is especially effective because of one key feature:
halon will not destroy electronic equipment, such as circuit boards, which, today, of course, are ubiquitous in nearly any endeavor in which you may want a fire extinguisher handy. For example, halon is used almost exclusively in commercial aircraft, because even EPA recognizes that it would not be good for electrical components to fail at 35,000 feet. But does anyone else wants to risk destroying computers and other equipment in the event of a fire?
The bottom line is: much as I personally like ozone, can't we admit that a fire or explosion is likely to do more harm to our environment than halon? But you see, that cost-benefit analysis is not central to EPA's mandate. EPA has been commissioned to be single-minded in its pursuit of short-sightedness; it is going to save the world from certain types of disasters so that it can make us all susceptible to some other types of disasters.
This is precisely what happened with the EPA's banning of DDT. DDT was, and is, an extremely effective pesticide, particularly with respect to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Malaria continues to exact a death toll of over 1 million people per year, mostly in Africa, and mostly to children under the age of 5. The EPA's banning of DDT, though only applicable to the US, has in fact impacted the world, given international agreements on certain chemicals like DDT and bans on manufacturing in our environmentally-conscious first-world countries. Heaven forbid that wealthier countries, whose citizens are not likely to die from malaria, should expose Africa to the environmental horrors of DDT, while their children die.
And so it goes. EPA is now considering banning triclosan, which, if you read your hand-soap labels, you have probably been using for years and years. It is an effective anti-bacterial agent, and is used not only in soap, but in other products such as trashbags, to prevent bacteria growth and spread. Now, one can debate the virtues and vices of triclosan, but EPA's mission nowhere includes the question of whether triclosan is doing more harm than good: is it keeping us from spreading germs and disease that cause a greater threat to our well-being? The argument, by the way, is that triclosan is a hormone disruptor, and its release into our waterways is causing untold environmental harm.
This is an interesting angle, in itself, since nowhere do I see the environmentalists pushing for the ban of birth control pills, which have been shown, in study after study, to be causing fish kills, "intersex" fish (that is, fish with both male and female sexual organs), and diminishing populations of male fish when estrogen is released into water supplies through the sewage system. (If you don't believe me, check out these stories from Environmental Health News, Scientific American, and elsewhere, or just google it yourself.) What's good for the goose, apparently, is not good for the other goose (since there are no more ganders).
And let's just talk about animals for a minute. The Endangered Species Act is another law that is single-mindedly short-sighted. For example, the Valley Elderberry Long-horned Beetle (VELB, for a short, if unattractive-sounding, acronym) is "endangered" here in Sacramento and the surrounding areas. And elderberry bushes–the VELB's habitat–grow along the American and Sacramento Rivers. As a result, a number of levee projects have been held up because of VELB protections.
Of course, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has more-or-less conceded that the VELB is no longer in need of protection (PLF is filing suit to get it delisted), but, since it remains on "the list", flood control districts, meaning, of course, taxpayers, are all bound to pay millions of dollars in "mitigation" every time an elderberry bush needs to be moved. This includes, by the way, an elderberry bush which held up repairs to a levee several years ago where the levee showed a threatening boil. So what happened? The levee broke through, flooding several acres of farmland and several homes. Oh, did I mention? It also destroyed the elderberry bush that was the reason for delaying repairs.
And recently, a judge in Washington DC held up FWS' efforts to delist a species of squirrel. Why? Well, what happened is that an environmental group sued FWS to force them to create a Recovery Plan for the squirrel which includes, among other things, an analysis of just how many squirrels would need to be scampering about for FWS to delist them. FWS found out that there were plenty of squirrels scampering about–so many, in fact, that the squirrel should not be listed. So, instead of spending time and money drafting a Recovery Plan, they just decided to go ahead and delist them. Makes sense, no?
Not so fast. The judge ruled in the environmentalists' favor, and said that FWS had to go through all the necessary procedures–including drafting the Recovery Plan–before it could delist the squirrel. FWS' attorney sensibly asked the judge whether this was not just a senseless "make busy work" result, to which the judge replied: it's what the law requires. And to make everyone feel better about this, I suspect that the environmentalist plaintiffs, having "won" their case, will probably get an award of attorneys fees paid out of our tax dollars.
The fact is, government bureaucrats and bureaucracies have been trained to be utterly mindless in their pursuit of . . . being bureaucratic. They stupidly follow the law, regardless of whether the law serves its intended purpose, and, thus, the law may end up being an end unto itself, with no practical sense or value. Just because you call a bureaucracy the Department of Education or the Department of Energy does not mean it is educating anyone or producing any energy. And yes, we are all paying for all of this. So I have to say, as the prospect of a government shutdown looms, I'm not entirely dismayed. Government inefficiency is bad enough, but when it is just plain wasting time and money, it's time to call a halt.