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 don't have the right to make decisions for other people. Period. No matter how high-minded and idealistic you want to portray
it, at the end of the day you are proposing to use force to coerce another man into doing your will. You may stop them from using force or fraud against others, but an adult may make decisions for themselves, even if they are bad. I am reminded of a great line from the HBO show Deadwood, "Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?"
- 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.