Malicious Meddling in Washington: Just What Is the Government’s Business?

December 12, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on December 12, 2011.

The battle over spending continues in Washington. Despite decades of grotesque federal malfeasance, President Obama believes that government can easily fix the world — including us, the people in it. Republicans don’t believe much of anything, other than they don’t want to raise taxes. It’s a good instinct, but not much of a political philosophy.

The fundamental issue is not government expenditures, but the role of government. If you believe most of human affairs should be conducted, and controlled, by the public sphere, then you must support lots of government spending. If you want to limit those outlays, you have to reduce the state’s responsibilities.

America has become a transfer society in which Uncle Sam subsidizes virtually every noisy and noisome interest group, as well as scores of dubious friends and allies overseas. Subsidies is where most of the money goes — Social Security and Medicare, which are middle class welfare; Medicaid, for low‐​income people; the Pentagon, which devotes much of its resources to defending other peoples, such as the Europeans, Japanese, and South Koreans, who could defend themselves; and endless smaller benefit and grant programs for education, housing, income support, training, transportation, and more. Roll back domestic and foreign subsidies for those who don’t need them and Americans would be well on their way to solving the current budget crisis.

Some government programs don’t cost a lot but still lead to the obvious question: Why is that activity government’s business? Even if such actions were costless, they still would be inappropriate. There are some things which the state simply should not do, at least in a society which purports to be “free.”

For instance, in little more than two weeks 100 watt incandescent bulbs will be illegal. After failing in the war on drugs, Uncle Sam is about to initiate a war on bulbs. Luckily, I stocked up earlier this year. I don’t go through them very quickly, so I figure I should be set for the rest of my natural (and even unnatural) life. Perhaps I can make a little black market profits on the side and leave a few bulbs for my heirs.

But the 100 watt bulbs are only the start. Lesser wattages will be banned in coming years. Naturally, it is supposed to be for our own good. Our betters in Washington believe that average people are too stupid to choose the right bulbs. So in our name we are being forced to raid the college fund to purchase expensive compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs, which take a long time to reach full brightness, yield an inferior glow, and require a hazmat team to deal with breakage. For the latter the government urges people to open windows, evacuate the room, and toss any clothes contaminated by mercury from the wonderful CFLs.

Yes, yes, we are told — there is no ban on incandescents, only a standard which they cannot meet. Just purely coincidental that they all will be illegal. And the CFLs are getting better, much better, and shouldn’t be rejected because of consumer prejudices. No, of course not. We should just let the smart people decide that everyone should buy Pepsi rather than Coke, or Coke rather than Pepsi, or Diet‐​Rite instead of the other two, or just drink water instead.

Why are the light bulbs we buy the government’s business?

Last year Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D‐​Ill.) decided that Wal‐​Mart and friends needed a break. So he led an effort to cut the “swipe” fees charged by banks to retailers for debit card purchases. Sen. Durbin was just outraged at the thought that America’s retail giants were being gouged by companies allowed to set their own prices. Imagine! In America! Companies allowed to charge whatever they want!

Just like the big merchants themselves.

Of course, passage of the law led to a bitter regulatory fight to influence the Federal Reserve, which was tasked with arbitrarily setting the swipe fees. Then the retailers whined that the new, lower fees were too high, which meant they weren’t getting as much of a return on their investment in lobbying as they had expected. So they did what most Americans do when disappointed, sued.

After having their swipe fees cut by the government, several banks announced plans to raise costs on consumers. Under protest most backed down — for now, but their forbearance may not last forever. Moreover, smaller retailers aren’t doing nearly as well as the big boys: banks have dropped discounts they once offered and companies which process debit transactions are raising their fees. Obviously, it is dangerous to allow too much freedom in a free market! Maybe Sen. Durbin needs to push legislation for a new round of price controls on everyone, retailers included. I think everything should be free!

Why are swipe fees the government’s business?

The Food and Drug Administration, which has killed tens or hundreds of thousands of people by delaying safe drugs from reaching the sick, is now considering legislation to reduce the amount of salt in our food. Not recommend that consumers use less. But mandate that producers use less. After all, notes the agency, long one of Washington’s worst national nannies, consumers’ “taste preference for sodium is acquired and can be modified.”

Presumably that is the case for broccoli, lima beans, and tofu as well. What will the health fascists next come up with? Everyone must eat Spam! No doubt, most Americans would benefit from a healthier diet. But which one?

Even the elites who are supposed to know better than the rest of us rubes often fall victim to fads and battle each other over who is the biggest, baddest genius. My Cato Institute colleague Walter Olson observed: “the government’s dietary advice has changed often through the years, and its recommendations in retrospect have regularly proved to be unfounded and even damaging. Sure enough, reports have begun to come out that the salt panic has been exaggerated and may even pose some health dangers of its own.”

Great. The government already has multiple ways to kill its citizens, starting with foolish, stupid, and unnecessary wars. Now it is planning to impose the latest diet fads.

Why is people’s salt consumption the government’s business?

Flying is a pain. After years of losing money while sending millions of people to thousands of destinations, the airlines are trying to make a profit by charging fees on everything but bathroom use, and that may be next. One of the most irritating costs to passengers is for checking luggage. Which encourages people to carry more bags onto planes, irritating flight attendants. So Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) wants to save us all. He has introduced legislation mandating that everyone gets one free bag and banning any charges for carry‐​ons.

After all, bags have a constitutional right to travel free. But why stop there? Passengers also should have a right to free booze. And better meals. Travelers shouldn’t have to pay more for good seats. Moreover, it is a time to think outside the box. Airlines should have to provide live music entertainment. That would spice up an otherwise boring time in the air. There are so many other items that belong on a list of passenger freebies.

In fact, government regulation of airline luggage policies is an idiotic idea. Personally, I prefer one (higher) price for everything. But there’s a good argument for people who ship more bags paying more than people who carry their own. I don’t know which business model is better. But I am certain that Sen. Cardin doesn’t have the slightest idea. As Milton Friedman observed, There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch!

Why is the cost of checking luggage the government’s business?

A battle recently opened over which religious organizations should be forced to provide coverage for birth control as part of their health insurance policies. Complained Rep. Diana DeGette (D‐​Col.): “I think in the 21st century, most people are stunned to hear that we would even be talking about whether women can buy birth control through their insurance policies.”

Of course, people should be stunned, since in a normal, sensible, nonpolitical world, birth control would not be covered by health insurance. People normally seek insurance to cover large, unexpected costs, not pay for modest, recurring expenses of activities freely chosen. Apparently Rep. DeGette is not familiar with the fact that sex normally is a voluntary activity, the frequency of which is under individual control. Imagine auto “insurance” which covered gas fill‐​ups, new stereo systems, and fancy detailing. It doesn’t take a genius to realize the cost implications for everyone. A company might decide that covering contraception would still be cheaper than paying for unplanned pregnancies, but Rep. DeGette is not the one to make that decision.

States have been playing this game for years. The podiatrists show up in the state capital and insist that health care policies cover their services. Then the acupuncturists make the lobbying trip. Followed by doctors doing hair transplants. Soon the legislature is forcing everyone is to pay for everything, even if most people would prefer an inexpensive catastrophic policy — real insurance. Now ObamaCare has Washington deciding what everyone in America must pay for, raising both health care costs and government outlays.

Why is insurance coverage of birth control the government’s business?

There’s a reason government is so costly. It does too much. But some of its worst abuses are more intrusive than expensive. It simply is not government’s business which light bulbs we buy, what banks charge for debit transactions, how much salt we eat, what airlines charge for checked bags, and whether insurance policies cover birth control. None of these issues should be dictated by the enlightened public servants of civics education myth, let alone the cynical vote‐​seeking politicians of Capitol Hill reality.

The Founders intended to create a limited government dedicated to protecting individual liberty. There can still be disagreement over what is necessary for the framework of a free society, but today Washington vastly exceeds its proper role. As a result, government costs far too much. And interferes far too much with our liberty.

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