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Government Intervention Does Not Justify More Government Intervention

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04/02/2015

For many years, advocates of mandatory “life and safety” regulation (i.e., legislated smoking bans, helmet laws, seat belt laws, bans on sugary drinks, etc) have claimed that they are justified on the grounds that, since so many health-care services are taxpayer-funded, then it is both necessary and legitimate that the government therefor mandate more safe and healthy behavior. In other words, since someone who doesn’t wear a seatbelt may end up in a taxpayer-funded hospital, the government has a “right” to lower healthcare costs by mandating seatbelts. By the same token, it is held that the government has an obligation to ban or discourage smoking or the eating of fatty goods, lest such a person drive up Medicare costs. This may be extended in another direction as well. Since nearly all highways and roads are government-funded, they claim, then the state has the “right” to regulate everything that occurs on them. Hence, you must wear your seat belt, submit to roadside DUI checks, wear helmets, etc.

There’s right-wing version of this also. Advocates of a more robust police state in the form of more deportations of suspected foreign nationals and more prosecutions against employers and landlords who hire or rent to foreign nationals (i.e, illegal immigrants), use an analogous argument.  The fact that employers have freely invited such people to live on their property or work in their establishments matters not at all, we are told, because the presence of “public goods” justifies more ICE agents, a border wall, and more federal agents to raid factories and issue fines to landlords. Another variant of this is the argument that drug laws (applicable to everyone) are necessary to keep welfare-recipients off drugs or drugs out of the public schools. (Drug laws also keep health-care costs down too, — or so it is claimed — so there’s a nice overlap here with the left on this issue, also.)

Now, I see that the same argument is being extended to the “anti-discrimination” debate. For example:

Think you should be able to segregate your business’ water fountains or reject service to black people as a matter of conscience?  Too bad!  The law is clear: if you use public roads and other public services to do business then you have to provide service to the public. [NB: This author is writing this without irony.]

The law doesn’t quite say what the author here thinks it says. (He seems to be confusing his argument with the “common carrier” argument.) But the point is made. If you use government roads or government sewage (or whatever) you have essentially surrendered your property rights. Any you do retain are at the discretion of the legislature and courts.

In all of these cases, the appropriate response, at least for the advocate of laissez-faire, is to lessen the size and extent of so-called “public” goods while lessening the monopolistic aspects of such goods through decentralization of government power.

For example, if it is a problem that unhealthy people use Medicare, then the answer is to lessen spending on Medicare, constrict eligibility, or to eliminate Medicare altogether and lower barriers for private-sector competition. The answer is not to empower government to manage everyone’s dietary habits as a “cost-saving” measure. Such schemes also necessitate enforcement, which of course brings with it new and bigger government agencies, more government agents, and more red tape. Likewise, if foreign nationals are using public schools or public roads, the answer is to lessen spending on such government-owned amenities and to allow for private-sector competition with public sector services. The answer is not to outlaw the renting of apartments to foreign nationals or to outlaw voluntary contracts with such people. Nor is the answer to pay more federal agents, build border walls, or increase the bureaucracy to “solve” a problem created by government intervention in the first place. In contrast, the free-market response is to restrict access to, or eliminate, such amenities (e.g., Prop 287), while allowing competition.

Similarly, if a business is using government roads to transport goods or is using the postal service, this is no way then leads us to the conclusion that the state therefore has the right to control everything the business does. In fact, the correct solution is to diminish the role of the state in the daily business of the establishment in question by allowing for private-sector options in transportation, utilities, package delivery, and so on.

Note that in most of these cases, the person who is now supposedly subject to greater regulation because he “benefits” from public amenities, doesn’t even have a choice in the matter. Seniors may not refuse Medicare. Business owners and workers must use public roads in most cases.

Now, for the leftists, there is no ideological conflict here. They are perfectly happy that roads, utilities, and other aspects of daily life are government-owned. The fact that the existence of "public" goods can be used to further regulate daily life is a bonus for them. For the “free-market” advocate who is also the advocate of more “enforcement” of laws, on the other hand, the situation presents a conflict.

“But we’ll never get rid of public roads or public schools or Medicare in my lifetime! Therefore businesses who hire illegal aliens must be punished, drugs must be outlawed, and we must create a robust border patrol and DEA as a second-best solution,” they may say.

But if the presence of government-owned amenities justify greater intervention in one case, they justify it in other cases, too. If we argue that it is appropriate for the federal government to regulate who meat packers can hire because immigrants use public roads to get to the plant, then the presence of government-owned amenities also justifies regulation of a “discriminatory” cake-baking establishment that uses the public roads, or which relies on public roads for customer access.

If the public roads are a type of subsidy to the baker, the meat packer, and the immigrant workers, then the “free-market” solution is to eliminate the subsidy, diminish its extent, or eliminate the monopolistic aspects the subsidy; not invent new ways for government to regulate the lives and property of everyone who has no choice but to use the government’s roads and “services” in the first place.  

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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