Statism Comes Back to Bite Technocrats

Over the past fifty years, a powerful driving force for statism in this country has come from technocrats, mainly on the left, who felt that the country would be better off if a few smart people (ie them) made the important decisions and imposed them on the public at large, who were too dumb to make quality decision for themselves.  People aren't smart enough,they felt, to make medication risk trade-off decision for themselves, so the FDA was created to tell them what procedures and compounds they could and could not have access to.  People couldn't be trusted to teach their kids the right things, so technocrats in the left defended government-run schools and fought school choice at every juncture.  People can't be trusted to save for their own retirement, so  the government takes control with Social Security and the left fights giving any control back to individuals.  The technocrats told us what safety equipment our car had to have, what gas mileage it should get, when we needed to where a helmet, what foods to eat, when we could smoke, what wages we could and could not accept, what was and was not acceptable speech on public college campuses, etc. etc.

Throughout these years, libertarians like myself argued that there were at least three problems with all of this technocratic statism:

  • You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you are smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values, etc., and thus make trade-offs differently.  Tedy Bruschi of the Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.
  • Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.  A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.  Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent design.  And you can hear the lament - how did we let Bush and these conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My answer is that you shouldn't have built the machine in the first place - it always falls into the wrong hands.  Maybe its time for me to again invite the left to reconsider school choice.

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.  And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was political, based on a conservative administration's opposition to abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well, what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA's politically motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial lawyers.  In establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the principal, contradictory to the left's own stand on abortion, that the government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for their own body  (other thoughts here).  Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that the machinery of control you created would never fall into your political enemy's hands.

OK, rant over.  No one wants to hear "you asked for it", but that is indeed my answer to many of the left's laments today about conservatives taking over their treasured instruments of state control.  I hate to be a geek here, but even Star Trek figured out this whole technocrat losing control of the fascist state thing 40 years ago.

Update:  Wow, I am not that skilled with reading academix-speak, but I am pretty sure that Ed Glaeser via Margina Revolution is saying the same thing:

Soft paternalism requires a government bureaucracy that is skilled in
manipulating beliefs.  A persuasive government bureaucracy is inherently
dangerous because that apparatus can be used in contexts far away from the
initial paternalistic domain.  Political leaders have a number of goals, only
some of which relate to improving individual well-being.  Investing in the tools
of persuasion enables the government to change perceptions of many things, not
only the behavior in question.  There is great potential for abuse.

Update:  Cafe Hayek discusses how the FDA is failing even technocratic objectives and this is an amazing data-rich in-depth analysis of the FDA vs. markets in managing drug risk/reward choices:

The debate over off-label prescribing is not about perfect safety; it is about
whether unavoidable trade-offs are best made for everyone by a centralized authority
such as the FDA or whether those decisions are best made by patients and doctors
acting independently. Whoever makes a decision to try (patient), prescribe (doctor),
or approve (FDA) a drug must face the trade-off between the costs of prescribing a
potentially unsafe medicine (a type II cost) and the costs of not prescribing a drug
that could have saved a life (a type I cost)....

The FDA tends to overemphasize the cost of using a potentially unsafe medicine,
because type II costs are highly visible and result in punishment of the FDA, whereas
type I costs are invisible and do not result in punishment.

If the FDA approved a drug that killed thousands of people, that story would make
the front page of every newspaper in the nation. Congressional hearings would certainly he held, the head of the FDA would probably lose his or her job, and the agency would be reorganized. But if the FDA rejected a drug that could save thousands of people, who would complain? When a drug kills a patient, that person is identifiable, and family and friends may learn the cause of the death. In contrast, the patient who would have lived, had new drugs been available, is identifiable only in a statistical sense. Family and friends will never know whether their loved one could have survived had the FDA not delayed the introduction of a new drug. In some cases the drug that could have saved the patient's life is never created, because the costs of the FDA's testing procedures make the necessary research and development appear unprofitable...

Patients and doctors do not face the same biased incentives as the FDA and thus
tend to pay more attention to the costs of not using a drug that could save a life.

  • BobH

    Excellent post. Your hope that this might awaken the left to the virtues of school vouchers is excessively optimistic though, in my opinion.

    It might happen if their opposition were based on principle. Although that might be partially true, the main obstacle to their conversion is that the Democratic Party is pretty much totally under the control of the public employee unions.

  • earl

    This is why the unindoctrinated world points at libertarians and says, "You're stupid." Research the ideas of negative externality, transaction costs, information costs, etc. That's not to say the state doesn't go overboard, but many of the policies you are shocked about have sound economic underpinnings.

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    Kash of Angry Bear points to the differences in income expectations based on educational achievement. His commen...

  • http://walkerw.blogspot.com Walker Willingham

    Your points are well taken and you write well, but do you really believe we would be better off with NO FDA? The FDA was established in 1931, and over the years I have no doubt there have been cases of over caution AND cases of under caution. There has been influence peddling if not outright bribery and plenty of actions no doubt to give ammunition to libertarian outrage.

    But come on, when there is such huge money to be made, do you really trust the market to operate efficiently enough to protect the consumers when their lives are at stake? It seems to me that independence and breadth of oversight are the keys in managing this agency, and I'm not willing to trust market forces alone to keep the pharmaceuticals from marketing drugs whose side effects are not well enough known, or worse known but hidden.

    Earl may have dismissed you a little too easily, and without backing up his objections, but it is wrong to assume that those of us who distrust the market, necessarily trust government, or that we cannot understand the danger of applying state power to control its excesses. We need checks and balances in many directions. When the state controls are being permeated by the corporations they were intended to keep in check then balance is lost in a big way. Your argument that we are reaping the harvest of our own foolishness in trying to regulate in the first place is an interesting one, but I'm not buying that it is always folly to create any institution based on the possibility that it might be later misused.

    Again I ask, are you sure we would be better off today if the FDA NEVER existed?

  • http://honestpartisan.blogspot.com honestpartisan

    If your standard for "statists" not getting "bitten" is that we have to agree with everything that government agencies do, then not only are we bitten, but we are forever destined to be so. Since I'm not an extremist, I'll accept that life has imperfections. Clearly, a country where a government agency certifies that a drug actually works before it is marketed makes me lots better off even it there are boneheaded political moves made along the way.

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  • Toquam

    Sweden has school choice, seems very popular. Even with their Malmo no-go ghetto, school choice seems to increase integration of the dark skinned minorities.

    K12 just opened an NYC charter school that gives each kid a laptop, broadband access and 20-30% of your time in s school building. The local teachers' unions will open their own RSN - curious how they will teach reading when "whole language" fails, and expect the NY Sun to cover the story.

    At a hut in the Presidentials, 5 home-schooling families happened to dine at the same table. 3 Massachusetts NPR liberals (Democrats too conservative) plus 2 evangelical Christians - almost no fire works, just solid thoughts on how to each your kids.

    Imagine a voucher worth $10- 20,000 per kid per year - if home school outperfroms state-monopoly schools at 0, you'd wonder about a level playing field.

  • http://galenslog.typepad.com Galen

    Earl,
    Maybe you're asking the wrong question. Imagine if there were a private corporation whose business were to give clinically relevant, non biases evaluations of new medications?

    I would predict wider drug choices, lower prices, and a much quicker time to market.

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  • markm

    Galen: Exactly. It works for other industries. Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) is a private corporation that rates the safety of electrical equipment. It has no power to force any manufacturer to pay their testing fees, or to keep unapproved equipment off the market, and yet most of the equipment you can buy has the stamp of approval from UL or one of it's competitors.

    The FDA could work similarly, on a voluntary basis. It would evaluate test results, as it does now, and if it found that the drug's effectiveness outweighed the risks it would allow the manufacturer to put the FDA stamp on the drug's packaging. Manufacturer's could choose other certification company, or could try to market the drug with no certification - but only an idiot would prescribe or buy drugs without a certification from a company with a pretty good track record, and medical insurance companies wouldn't pay for uncertified drugs.

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  • http://www.chicagoboyz.net shannon Love

    earl,

    Ironically, we are about as safe now as we were before the Feds got involved in drug regulation. The original impetus for the establishment of what became the FDA were patent medicines loaded with opium and cocaine. Scientific medicines produced by corporations hardly existed. Will still have patent medicines laced with dangerous drugs but now they are call "all-natural food supplements" and the FDA is prevented by law from regulating them.

    The current FDA does not exist to protect people from dangerous drugs but to protect people from "evil corporations." People are quite free to poison themselves anyway the won't as long as no large corporation makes a profit from it. This same mindset also contributes to the suppression of drugs that could save lives. It more important to harm corporations than to protect public safety.

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  • http://www.chicagoboyz.net/ Ken

    "Your points are well taken and you write well, but do you really believe we would be better off with NO FDA?"

    Hell yes. Medical advances build on each other, and when you inject a delay into every step, and cut off certain pathways by forbidding people to take some of the drugs, the number of years we are behind where we should be in medical technology keeps going up as time goes on.

    This has been going on for a hell of a long time. Could we have gotten an anti-aging drug by now? Hard to tell, but at some point the gap will be such that every death by so-called "natural causes" is attributable to the FDA's stalling. The only open question is whether we have reached that point or not.

    "But come on, when there is such huge money to be made, do you really trust the market to operate efficiently enough to protect the consumers when their lives are at stake?"

    I trust the market to operate efficiently enough to allow consumers to take a level of risk that they deem appropriate, and to allow consumers to protect themselves as much as they consider proper. Corporations are great at meeting demand, but they absolutely suck at being substitute parents; I don't consider that a problem because I don't think consumers need substitute parents.

  • Robert Schwartz

    I thought you would appreciate this from an article written by the Dean of GMU Law School:

    http://www.acsblog.org/solomon-amendment-fair-v-rumsfeld-2353-polsby-not-a-case-about-gays-and-the-military.html

    There is a real poignancy to the exercise of this broad power that your post rightly stresses. You say: “A freedom of speech or expressive association that protects traditionalist churches also protects liberal universities.” Yes. Just so. But while we are on the subject of pari passu, let’s remember that the Civil Rights Restoration Act was supported by people who thought that the proverbial “the knock at the door” would never be at their door but always at the door of some goiter-stricken, Bible-thumping, gun-toting rustic with eighteen teeth and a pick-up truck. The pipe dream was that federally imposed requirements, more or less obnoxious, were always going to be visited on other people, never on oneself. Prof. Tribe exemplifies this exquisitely purblind sensibility in his recently expressed worry whether the Supreme Court could be trusted to “write an opinion with the degree of delicacy required to strike down the Solomon Amendment in a way that does not endanger the vigorous uses of Title VI and Title IX. . . . .”

    “Delicacy”! You gotta love it! As though a Congress with the power to do good in Greenville, South Carolina would not also, and apodictically, be a Congress with the power to do good in New Haven and Cambridge! To paraphrase your post: A Civil Rights Restoration Act strong enough to protect our people from the prejudices of traditionalist institutions is an inevitable template for a Solomon Amendment strong enough to protect our people from the prejudices of liberal universities. Schools like Bob Jones University and Grove City College have learned to adapt to the Civil Rights Restoration Act. Yale must learn to adapt to the Solomon Amendment.

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