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The Periodic Polemic

Polemic for 30 June 2001

On Unintended Consequences

I hate laws created to address public outcries. I hate them because they are often drafted in haste, or, worse, carefully drafted but presented so as to disguise their full impact. Because of the immediacy of an issue, people clamor for the swift passage of the bill, and we recieve a law created ostensibly to take care of our concerns, but which is packed with unintended consequences.

Not that these consequences are always unwanted. Consider the case of campaign reform.

Everyone wants reform, right? Doesn't reform always make things better? With reform, we'll be stronger, less corrupt, better able to face the future, right? Why not pass laws to make sure we have reform, then!

So of course, who better to reform politics than politicians? We already have the agriculture industry set up to regulate and reform itself, along with the oil companies, the medical profession, the defense industry... why, the list just goes on and on. The neat thing about politicians regulating themselves is that they don't need any lobbyist middlemen to explain politics to them. They already know plenty about it, so they know exactly how to regulate it themselves.

Does anyone else see where this could lead? If you ever see a political reform bill that has bipartisan support, rest assured it will keep incumbents in office and discourage or make it more difficult for people outside the political process to get in and upset the apple cart of Democrat-Republican rule.

Politicians say we need to limit contributions from private citizens. Well, that means elected officials spend half or more of their time in fundraisers, while being paid with tax dollars to support themselves while fundraising. Common citizens cannot do that and hold down a normal day job, so advantage, incumbent.

Politicians say we need caps on overall spending. Used to be, a champion for a cause needed only find a candidate to support with his war chest. Now, the champion must run himself. Perot and Forbes, regardless of how you felt for them, did shake up the politics of the country and were able to run effective campaigns by spending their own money. Absolute spending caps would reduce the effectiveness of independently wealthy candidates relative to the overwhelming advantages of incumbency. If the incumbent doesn't have to face huge amounts of an opponents' money, he doesn't have to be as accountable to the public for his actions, for it is money that would buy the ads to make the statements that the incumbent isn't perhaps the right guy for the job. Less money, less need to explain yourself.

Why not cut down on those ugly attack ads? Again, incumbent advantage, as a challenger MUST be critical in order to prove why he needs to be elected. He MUST be able to get the message out that the incumbent isn't fit for the job. How else can you do that effectively without attacking him?

Why not have a governmental body to oversee elections? We do, in the Federal Elections Commission. Most of the charges raised with the FEC are from partisan supporters accusing their candidate's opponent of something or another. The charges are frivolous, but the one side could then say, "Questions have been raised" and "The matter is under investigation". What good is a regulatory body, if its existence and function allow lies to be spread with a veneer of officialdom?

Campaign finance reform is limiting to free speech and raises the advantages of incumbents significantly. It will not stop illegal activity: truly crooked people proceed apace with their business, regardless of the law. No, it is an issue designed to win points with voters and make yourself to look like a white knight even as you craftily secure your own powerbase against all comers. It is a good idea in the minds of most individuals, but one with unintended consequences when put into action.

To be sure, government is not alone in creating situations with unintended consequences. Pharmeceutical companies can create drugs with lethal or disabling side-effects. Car manufacturers can produce vehicles with poor design, constituting a danger to their drivers and other people on the road. I could say something foolish and lose my job over it.

But if I say something foolish, I only affect myself and my family and those immediately connected to me with ill consequences. A bad car or drug could potentially affect hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people before it is withdrawn or avoided by the public. A law, though, is different. It affects an entire nation of people, and cannot be voluntarily recalled.

This is the trap of all regulation: you think, on the surface, it is a good idea. Sure, my meat should be safe. Absolutely, my kids should be free from abuse. Certainly, politics should be free from corruption. We are made to clamor for these things by the people who stand to gain clout or other benefits from passage of laws related to them. The laws that are passed, however, are all too easily loopholed, twisted, interpreted, and amended to produce results we quite didn't expect when we first asked for them.

The state of Arizona once created substantial subsidies for people who bought cars that had the capacity to operate with alternative fuels. An unintended consequence of the law was for darn near everyone in the state to go out and get a vehicle loaded down with all the options, most often a gas-guzzling SUV or truck, and have the state foot about 50% of the bill. They would then neglect to use, or even rip out, the alternative fuel system. The state asked people very nicely to not abuse the law, but that did not work. Once an entitlement was created, the government was bound over to fulfill its part of the deal, because the law demanded it. It took another law, with all the cost and time associated in its creation and passage, to undo the effects of this bad law, which sure seemed like a good idea when it was first drafted.

We have laws on the books to brand sexual offenders with scarlet letters: we publish their names and addresses for all to see, that we might better shun them and keep our precious children away from their predation. Of course, you men need to be extra careful now. Should you go to a bar one night, find the bathroom too crowded, and relieve yourself in a dark alley, a passing policeman can spot you and write you up for public lewdness. That, in turn would make you a sexual offender. You would have to register, have your name and address posted for all to see and have parents pull their children out of your path to avoid you, the sexual predator. And all you did was take a whiz because the bathroom line was too long. Welcome to the world of unintended consequences. This one's a little extreme, but by no means the most extreme.

The more extreme the change we shout for, the worse the unintended consequences. The most extreme change man has asked for has been the Communist dream. Eliminating differences of wealth and place in society seems a wonderful idea, but in practice has produced either economic ruin, political tyranny, or genocide, or a combination of these elements. The unintended consequences of Marxism included Stalin, Mao, Ceaucescu, and Pol Pot. People put them into power, thinking they would deliver their states to a pure Socialist paradise, with an end to hunger, illiteracy, class, poverty, and thralldom. The apparatus created to get to the Socialist paradise instead wound up casting people into the grasp of hunger, ignorance, apparatchniks, poverty, thralldom to the state, imprisonment and death. Not at all what those people expected.

I believe American society can do just fine with the laws currently on the books. We don't need new laws for new circumstances: we need government to retreat and limit its functions. But that's just me. You may think we need more laws, more regulatory bodies, more protections that trade liberty for promises of security. Fine by me, that's your opinion. I will only ask one question:

What unintended consequences do you want passed into law today?

Dean Webb

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