Topic: Regulatory Studies

Ideology and Critical Infrastructure Protection

I recently received a pair of reports on critical infrastructure protection in the mail, and have now had a chance to read them. Both are written by Kenneth Cukier, reporter for The Economist. They are well-written, thought-provoking, balanced, and blessedly brief. They summarize a roundtable and a working group convened by an organization I had not heard of before called The Rueschlikon Conference.

One is called Protecting Our Future: Shaping Public-Private Cooperation to Secure Critical Information Infrastructures. The other is Ensuring (and Insuring?) Critical Information Infrastructure Protection. They focus on an important question: How do we make sure that the facilities of our networked economy and society survive terrorists acts and natural disasters?

I want to come back to the ‘compliment’ I gave both papers: “balanced.” The first report finds, among other things, that we should “harness the power of the private sector” and “use market forces” to protect critical information infrastructures. It notes that Wal-Mart had 66% of its stores in the region of Hurricane Katrina back in operation 48 hours after the storm. It also notes how, with electrical lines downed by Katrina, BellSouth’s backup generators had kicked in. When fuel supplies ran low, government officials confiscated the fuel being trucked in to keep them running. Yet, for reasons I cannot discern, the report maintains that “public-private cooperation” is what’s needed rather than getting the public sector out of the way.

The second report finds that the marketplace is insufficient to protect critical infrastructure because it lacks proper incentives. It also finds that the insurance industry can create a market for security. It’s got to be one or the other. The “balance” of these reports becomes more and more just contradiction.

A telling line can be found in the second report: “[O]ne person expressed skepticism that relying on the market to solve [critical information infrastructure] security would work, since it seemed to fall too neatly into the modern ideological mantra that markets solve all problems.” In other words, a conclusion in favor of market solutions was avoided because it might further validate markets as a problem solving tool.

The uncomfortable search for “balance” in these otherwise good reports may reflect an ideological preference for government involvement – despite the harm that did in the case of Hurricane Katrina.

It is insufficient, of course, to identify ideological bias (or anti-ideological bias?) in the reports. I did find them useful and interesting, and they inspired a few thoughts that I think deserve more exploration:

  1. Anti-trust law thwarts communication among companies responsible for infrastructure protection. Rather than convening so many government work-groups, the root of the problem in anti-trust law should be addressed.
  2. Government secrecy is one of the things undoubtedly keeping the insurance industry from having the confidence to insure against terrorism risk. Thus, it does not promulgate better terror-security practices among its insureds, and a valuable tool in the struggle against terrorism lies on the shop floor. Rather than subsidies, the government should give the insurance industry information.
  3. People interested in these issues should attend or watch Cato’s upcoming forum on John Mueller’s book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

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.