Commentary

Bill of Wrongs

By Stephen Slivinski
This article appeared on American.com on March 20, 2007.

In February, a planeload of JetBlue passengers spent eight well-documented hours stuck on the tarmac. It took Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) only three days to respond. Her thought: an “Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.” She doesn’t want to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect us from unwarranted impediments to life, liberty, and the pursuit of aisle seating. But the grandiloquence of the bill’s title is revealing—rather than answering a policy need, the new measure simply reflects Congress’s there-ought-to-be-a-law mentality.

Boxer’s bill would create a passenger “right” to food, water, adequate restroom facilities, and an option to deplane if a flight is delayed longer than three hours. It’s no surprise that in the wake of the JFK debacle, JetBlue issued its own “Customer Bill of Rights,” providing everything the Boxer bill mandates plus various forms of compensation—and that’s a move other airlines may want to mimic.

But who would you trust to determine the best way for an airline to operate in such a situation: your congressman, who’s never run one and is usually re-elected regardless of flight delays in his home district or anywhere else, or managers who have to listen to their customers in order to keep their jobs? In promising to try their best not to make the same mistakes again, JetBlue was motivated by the hard experience of lost revenue.

That’s not an isolated example of how markets work. And the Boxer bill, alas, is not an isolated example of how Congress works. Elected officials routinely use the rhetoric of rights to justify legislation which would determine what customers and corporations can or cannot do in markets. Over the past ten years, there have been at least 25 pieces of legislation introduced in Congress that include the phrase “bill of rights” in their titles.

The Student Borrower Bill of Rights, sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton, professes a “right” to low monthly bills for student loan repayment. The Computer Owners’ Bill of Rights of 2003 claimed—as if the federal government could even enforce this—that we have a right not to receive “spam” solicitations and junk e-mail. Then there are the various versions of the bills of rights for patients, doctors, and health care providers, all of which find different and often mutually exclusive “rights” for each participant in the medical industry.

To be fair, none of the bills mentioned above actually passed, but they serve as examples of how members of Congress hope to use the power of the federal government to alleviate the inconveniences—some minor, some not so minor—of everyday life.

If creating new rights is the order of the day, maybe I should lobby Congress to recognize my “right” to avoid spending too much time in line at the grocery store. Perhaps Congress should mandate that all supermarkets have a minimum of four express lanes. They could call it the “Shoppers’ Bill of Rights.” So, instead of having to pay the cost of doing something that might make me better off—say, by driving a little further to shop at a grocery store with more express lanes—I can now ask the government to help me avoid having to make those choices. If the required express lanes make it impossible to fit a supermarket into crowded inner city environments—oh well, at least the thought was good.

The point is that we simply don’t have the right to use government to force others in the marketplace to make us happier as long as there is no fraud involved. The marketplace, however, does provide a mechanism for us to persuade others to make us happier. It’s called “competition.”

Maybe Barbara Boxer’s “Airline Passenger Bill of Rights” should only be one line long: “The right of persons to refuse to buy tickets from an airline from which they have not received suitable service shall not be abridged.”

But that would never do—it wouldn’t get its sponsors on the evening news.