Topic: Government and Politics

The Airborne Version of the Post Office/Department of Motor Vehicles

Don Boudreaux’s Cafe Hayek Blog is always worth reading, but his recent complaint about the snail-like pace of passport control struck a raw nerve since I also travel frequently. Don makes the point that it is foolish for people to want government to take over health care when it is so incompetent at everything it does. That is a very valid point, but it understates the case. Passport control (and also security screening) should be incredibly simple. Data on flight schedules and passenger density is easily available. Yet somehow the bureaucrats are incapable of having staff on duty during peak times. So if this relatively easy task is beyond the ability of the bureaucracy, then something more complex like health care surely will turn into a disaster when placed in the hands of government:

The reason we missed our flight is that nearly 50 minutes of our time after landing was consumed by waiting in a long and slow-moving line to clear passport control.  At that terminal on Friday evening, the TSA had only three agents to service the line of U.S. citizens returning from abroad.  Three.  That’s it.  Most of the passport-control-agent booths stood empty.

Still No Consensus

A headline in the Washington Post (the actual newspaper, not the online version) reads:

Montgomery Still Lacking Consensus on Growth Policy

The article explains that officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are having trouble agreeing on rules for limiting economic growth while leaving room for development. “I don’t think there is consensus on much of anything at this point,” said County Council member Nancy Floreen.

One reason that there’s no consensus, of course, is that there’s no consensus. The county’s 900,000 residents don’t all agree on who should be allowed to build new homes and businesses, who should have their property rights limited, who should pay the bills, and so on. This is why Hayek said that planning was not compatible with liberal values. The only values we can agree on in a big diverse society, he wrote, are “common abstract rules of conduct that secured the constant maintenance of an equally abstract order which merely assured to the individual better prospects of achieving his individual ends but gave him no claims to particular things.” That is, you set up property rights and the rule of law, and you let people run their own lives without being allowed to run other people’s lives. Try to go beyond that, and you’re going to infringe on freedom.

As I wrote a few months ago, another newspaper story reported

“As a consensus builds that the Washington region needs to concentrate job growth, there are signs that the exact opposite is happening.

Over the past five years, the number of new jobs in the region’s outer suburbs exceeded those created in the District and inner suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties … contradicting planners’ ‘smart growth’ visions of communities where people live, work and play without having to drive long distances.”

Maybe if tens - hundreds - of thousands of people aren’t abiding by the “consensus,” there is no consensus: there is just a bunch of government-funded planners attending conferences and deciding where people ought to live. It’s like, “Our community doesn’t want Wal-Mart.” Hey, if the community really doesn’t Wal-Mart, then a Wal-Mart store will fail. What that sentence means is: “Some organised interests in our community don’t want Wal-Mart here because we know our neighbours will shop there (and so will we).”

In her book It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton calls for “a consensus of values and a common vision of what we can do today, individually and collectively, to build strong families and communities.” But there can be no such collective consensus. In any free society, millions of people will have different ideas about how to form families, how to rear children, and how to associate voluntarily with others. Those differences are not just a result of a lack of understanding each other; no matter how many Harvard seminars and National Conversations funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities we have, we will never come to a national consensus on such intimate moral matters. Clinton implicitly recognizes that when she insists that there will be times when “the village itself [read: the federal government] must act in place of parents” and accept “those responsibilities in all our names through the authority we vest in government.”

Governments would do better to set a few rules of the game and let market enterprises respond to what people really rather than try to push people into conforming to planners’ visions and phony consensuses.

Finally Legal!

I can finally report that I am driving a legal automobile.

As readers will recall, this was my third trip (see here and here for previous installments in the saga). Actually, it was my third and fourth trip. When I got to the DMV this morning, happily clutching the Fairfax County tax receipt to my chest, I was told that I also needed an emissions test. It would have been nice of the bureaucrats to tell me that on my first trip, but why expect miracles.

So I had to exit the line, go back out to my car, and drive (illegally, once again) to a nearby service station. This interaction with the private sector was predicatably brief, so I was back at the DMV in less than 30 minutes. Unfortunately, Dan Griswold must have been hard at work in the interim since there was now a long line of people, none of whom appeared to be native-born Americans.

But after a 90-minute wait, I got up to the counter, and was able to get registered - but only after dealing with a libertarian quandary. While twiddling my thumbs, I noticed that I could request a vanity plate. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to have a license plate reading “anti gov.” But getting a special plate also involved paying more money - funds that presumably would help finance the sloth-like bureaucracy that I despise. After wrestling with my conscience (which usually comes out on the short end), I decided that the cause of freedom would be best served by having the vanity plate.

I feel guilty about giving government more money, but I somewhat compensated by paying for my registration and vanity plate with a credit card, which means at least some small slice of the $103 gets diverted to the financial services industry. It ain’t easy being libertarian, but I somehow muddled through.

Air Traffic Control

You often need a crisis, real or imagined, to get major policy changes enacted. There are two looming challenges in our backwards and bureaucratic air traffic control system that might nudge Congress toward reform. The first is that the government system is having a hard time keeping up with the continued growth in air travel.

The second, as Government Executive magazine reports today, is that a large group of controllers are nearing retirement and the government might have a hard time finding replacements.

These challenges add to the woes of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has mismanaged the air traffic control (ATC) system for decades. The FAA has struggled to modernize ATC technology in order to improve safety and expand capacity. Its upgrade projects are often behind schedule and far over budget, according to the Government Accountability Office. (Discussed in here). 

Privatization of U.S. air traffic control is long overdue. During the past 15 years, more than a dozen countries have partly or fully privatized their ATC, and provide some good models for U.S. reforms.

Canada privatized its ATC in 1996, setting up a fully private, non-profit corporation, Nav Canada, which is self-supporting from charges on aviation users. The Canadian system has received rave reviews for investing in new technologies and reducing air congestion, and it has one of the best safety records in the world.

The United States should be a leader in air traffic control, especially given the nation’s legacy of aviation innovation. A privatized system would allow for more flexible hiring policies, replacement of expensive human controllers with machines, and access to private capital for infrastructure upgrading. It is also likely that privatization would help improve safety and reduce air congestion by speeding the adoption of advanced technologies.

Great Moments in Local Government, Part II

I am moving ever closer to being a compliant citizen of Fairfax County and the State of Virginia. As I noted in an earlier post, I am seeking to renew the registration on my car, but I failed miserably in my first trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The trip to the Fairfax County tax office was rather successful, albeit a bit puzzling. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to pay a mysterious overdue tax and then a $20 fee to remove a “hold” on my registration. But the County bureaucrat said there was no overdue tax. This made sense because I hadn’t received any notices in the mail, but I can only imagine why the automated system was trying to get me to cough up $174 (I’m now thankful my efforts to comply were unsuccessful).

Yet even though there was no unpaid tax, the County still insisted on getting $20 to remove the hold. In an ideal world, I would have loudly protested this ridiculous demand. In the spirit of the Founding Fathers, I would have pointed out the absurdity of being forced to pay the remove a hold for a tax liability that did not exist. In reality, the County got its money and I’m just happy that I have (at least in theory) just one final visit to the DMV.

I never did ask, by the way, why the County thinks I have four cars. While I am a tad bit curious, discretion is the better part of valor when dealing with bureaucracy. Stay tuned.

Hash Brownies and Harlots in the Halls of Power

Eight British Cabinet ministers have admitted that they smoked marijuana in their youth, most of them “only once or twice” in college, which would be an atypical pattern. The revelations began with Jacqui Smith, the new Home Secretary, the equivalent of the attorney general. They also include the police minister and the Home Office minister in charge of drugs. The eight have been dubbed the “Hash Brownies,” in acknowledgment of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

On Wednesday Brown announced that Smith would lead a government review of the laws on marijuana, specifically with reference to whether simple possession should be again grounds for arrest. (The law was eased in 2002.) Several leading Conservatives in the Shadow Cabinet have also acknowledged using drugs, and party leader David Cameron has emulated President Bush in saying that he’s not obligated to discuss every detail of his private life before he entered politics.

In the United States many leading politicians including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama have admitted using drugs, while Bush and Bill Clinton tried to avoid answering the question.

In both Britain and the United States, all these politicians support drug prohibition. They support the laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet they laugh off their own use as “a youthful indiscretion.”

These people should be asked: Do you think people should be arrested for using drugs? Do you think people should go to jail for using drugs? And if so, do you think you should turn yourself in? Do you think people who by the luck of the draw avoided the legal penalty for using drugs should now be serving in high office and sending off to jail other people who did what you did?

And the same question applies to Sen. David Vitter, who has acknowledged employing the services provided by the “D.C. Madam.” Many people have compared Vitter to other politicians who engaged in adultery, or have mocked his commitment to “family values”–he has said that no issue is more important than protecting the institution of marriage from the threat of gay couples getting married. But the other politicians usually cited were not breaking the law when they had affairs, and Vitter’s hostility to gay marriage while cheating on his own is a matter of simple political hypocrisy. The more specific issue, as with the pot-smoking drug warriors, is that Vitter (presumably) supports the laws against prostitution. Yet he himself, while a member of the United States Congress, has broken those laws and solicited other people to break them.

Vitter should be asked: Do you think prostitution should be illegal? If so, will you turn yourself in? Or will you testify for the defense in the D.C. Madam case, asking the court not to punish Deborah Jeane Palfrey if it’s not punishing you?

I hope that Jacqui Smith, Barack Obama, and David Vitter will engage in some introspection and conclude that if they didn’t deserve to go to jail, then neither do other pot smokers, prostitutes, and their customers. They might decide that not every sin or mistake should be a crime. But they should not sit in the halls of power, imposing on others the penalties they don’t think should apply to them.

Bush Waxes Philosophical on Health Care

People sick of the big-government conservatism practiced by the Bush administration might be excited at the headline in today’s Washington Post: “Bush: No Deal On Children’s Health Plan/President Says He Objects On Philosophical Grounds.” But President Bush’s philosophical objection to the proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program is in no way a reversal from his stance that big spending is okay as long as Republicans can take credit.

What philosophy does Bush subscribe to?  Apparently, it’s the philosophy that says the federal government should only expand the welfare state by billions of dollars, instead of tens of billions of dollars: “The president said he objects on philosophical grounds to a bipartisan Senate proposal to boost the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years. Bush has proposed $5 billion in increased funding and has threatened to veto the Senate compromise and a more costly expansion being contemplated in the House.” 

Later in the article Bush is quoted as saying, “I think it’s going to be very important for our allies on Capitol Hill to hear a strong, clear message from me that expansion of government in lieu of making the necessary changes to encourage a consumer-based system is not acceptable.”

He also said, “I’m worried that there will be a strong incentive for people to switch from the private sector to the government.” 

If only the president had adopted a similar attitude when he approved a $1.2 trillion expansion of Medicare in 2003 in lieu of consumer-based approaches.