Topic: Regulatory Studies

Genetic Engineering: The Eugenics of Tomorrow?

I received a request today to comment on the possible dangers of genetic engineering. Michael Crichton’s latest book, Next, explores some of the horrors eugenics could bring, such as the mixing of animal and human DNA. Here are some of my thoughts:

Isaac Asimov, another great science fiction writer, said, “If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” 

It is impossible to estimate, let alone know, the balance of good or evil that scientific knowledge will bring. In everything humans do, they are daunted by the principle of unintended consequences, but the answer is not to stop looking for answers. The pursuit of knowledge is the only true path to improving the human condition, yet there are almost as many views on what knowledge should be pursued as there are pursuers. The answer is to proceed cautiously, allowing small steps and small corrections, so with time the truth will show itself.

The best way to ensure caution is to keep government out of the pursuit of knowledge, whether scientific or otherwise. In the private sector, endeavors are supported only by those who believe they are ethical and worthwhile. The more extreme and outlandish the idea, the less likely it is to receive support. When mistakes are made on a small scale, they have small scale effects. Governments, which are run by individuals no less fallible than the rest of humanity, are influenced by bad ideas as much as by good ones. But, unlike the individual mad scientist with a small group of supporters, government mistakes loom larger than life — its policies affect the lives of whole populations.

In the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics was touted as the answer to all of humanity’s problems. Great scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell and Carol Campbell Brigham at first supported eugenics, as did every U.S. president between 1901 and 1933. Many people all over the world worked hard both in their private lives and through government policy to implement its principles. 

Individuals had their own ideas about improving the human gene pool by marrying only superior specimens of humanity. If the eugenics movement had resulted in nothing more than discriminatory marriage practices, the word “eugenics” wouldn’t represent anything more than a silly fad. The reason eugenics has become almost synonymous with mass sterilizations and genocide is because governments got involved.

Genetic engineering may be the answer to many of humanity’s problems or it may be the next eugenics. Let’s keep government out of science and let the advances and mistakes take place in small steps so that humanity can learn from scientific successes and failures on a realistic scale. Only with government intervention do potential mishaps become disastrous tragedies.

Muggles Aren’t The Only Rent-Seekers

I confess: I’m a big fan of J.K. RowlingsHarry Potter series. One of the reasons (OK, not one of the bigger reasons, but still one of the reasons) is the books’ wonderful cynicism about government and politics.

Consider Rowlings’ most recent update of her website, in which she announces the December ”Wizard of the Month”:

Laurentia Fletwock
1947 – present
Celebrated breeder and racer of winged horses. Has campaigned for tighter restrictions on broomstick use.

I guess muggles aren’t the only rent-seekers.

Judging Kyoto

Next Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Massachusetts v. EPA, the blockbuster environmental case of the term. The issue: Does the Clean Air Act, a 1970s-vintage anti-smog statute, require the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions from new American cars? A number of states and enviro groups say “yes!” The EPA–in an exceedingly rare example of administrative self-restraint–says “no.” The stakes? Big: If the petitioners win, American carmakers may face the equivalent of Kyoto global warming standards, imposed by judicial fiat, despite Congress’s umpteen rejections of the Kyoto regime.

Cato filed an amicus brief on the EPA’s behalf, written by environmental law whiz Jonathan Adler and joined by lawprofs James Huffman and Andrew Morriss. Read it here. We argue that the petitioners lack standing to sue the EPA and also argue, for good measure, that nondelegation principles should counsel against creatively translating the Clean Air Act into a template for federal global warming regulation.

Cato’s intrepid Pat Michaels also filed a brief, joined by a number of other prominent climatologists, which tackles the dubious scientific claims of the environmental petitioners.

For more on the case, and its implications, Professor Adler recently participated in a panel discussion of the case at the American Enterprise Institute, which will be replayed on C-Span 2 tonight at 6 p.m. However, you can watch the archived video anytime here.

Freedom is Breaking Out all Over

Being a libertarian means you’re often the entertainment at cocktail parties.  ‘Let’s have Jim tell us why there should be no traffic lights!  It’ll be a riot!’

Now comes word that seven cities and regions in Europe are doing away with traffic lights and signs - indeed with most traffic regulations.

“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior,” says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

Psychologists have long revealed the senselessness of such exaggerated regulation. About 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. What’s more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment. He may stop in front of the crosswalk, but that only makes him feel justified in preventing pedestrians from crossing the street on every other occasion. Every traffic light baits him with the promise of making it over the crossing while the light is still yellow.

“Unsafe is safe”

The result is that drivers find themselves enclosed by a corset of prescriptions, so that they develop a kind of tunnel vision: They’re constantly in search of their own advantage, and their good manners go out the window.

The new traffic model’s advocates believe the only way out of this vicious circle is to give drivers more liberty and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves.

I first read about the weakness of traffic regulation in Regulation magazine and was reminded of the concept by a recent post on TechDirt which seems to have stirred some passion given the 100+ comments.

I’m entirely in favor of a deregulated, human-oriented traffic system - though I am slightly concerned about it diminishing my entertainment value at cocktail parties.

Schumer-Bloomberg on Sarbanes-Oxley

Apparently I am not alone in the skepticism I expressed last week concerning an oped by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which the duo decries the ill effects of regulation and frivolous lawsuits on New York’s financial services sector.  Four of the five letters to the editor in today’s Wall Street Journal expressed incredulity that these two pols could possibly expect to be taken seriously on the subject, given their otherwise steadfast support for government intrusion into our lives. 

I don’t know the newspaper business, but I have an inkling the WSJ ran their piece not so much for the good ideas it contained, but because it knew that the juxtaposition of those ideas with that by-line would elicit a spankfest from its readership that would lend itself to today’s title of the Letters to the Editor section: ”Schumer and Bloomberg Are For Less Regulation? Is This a Joke? (sorry, subscription required).

There was one letter, however, that actually defends Sarbanes-Oxley and the huge regulatory burdens imposed upon financial services firms operating in New York because it “gives our New York financial market a distinct competitive advantage [relative to London].”  Come again?  Yes, this letter argues that, ”while it is quite true that there are more regulatory bodies and higher fines in New York than overseas, that is only a temporary situation.”  The author argues not that those U.S. regulations will be relaxed, but that the regulatory burden on firms operating in the London market will be just as heavy in the future, and that New York firms are lucky to have a head start on the learning curve.

To put this all in context, the author of the pro-regulation letter is a vice president at Orchestria Corporation (a New York company), which is an entity that “helps companies achieve compliance and good governance through electronic communication control.”  Orchestria is in the business of helping it’s customers “to efficiently manage the burden of regulation and ensure compliance.”  In other words, Orchestria (and probably hundreds of companies like it) is the Frankenstein of Sarbanes-Oxley.  Although people like Schumer and Bloomberg are recognizing rhetorically the damage caused by regulatory overkill, righting the ship will be more difficult than just publishing an oped.

Sarbanes-Oxley has created a whole new industry that benefits from the status quo.  I wonder if they know any politicians who would enjoy their financial support.