One Swallow

Tibor R. Machan

Those who have paid a bit of attention to my writings on public policy probably know that I have always been an opponent of preemptive petty tyrannies of government regulations, the sort that force people to follow certain standards of professional conduct, including manufacture, regardless of whether or not they have deserved to be coerced.

In the criminal law such prior restraint is seriously frowned upon but in administrative law it is not, mainly because of two legal notions. These are the police power–a feudal relic if there ever was one–and the arguably distorted provision of the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, the interstate commerce clause.

The former made sense only when the monarch had been thought to be in charge of us all, when government ruled the lives of all the subjects as if they were children, invalids or inferiors. The latter appeared at first to mean only that Congress is authorized to regularize commerce among the several states so that these states do not behave as economically warring or protectionist political bodies. No duties may be imposed between New York and Pennsylvania (etc.) was the idea, no tariffs, nada.

OK, now instead of tossing this police power feudal notion and being faithful to the rational meaning of the interstate commerce clause, both developed as weapons in the arsenals of government planners and interventionists despite the classical liberal revolution. This despite the fact that neither legal measure has a leg to stand on in the court of justice.

But perhaps practically they are unexceptionable, no? Why would that be? Because, just as now and then a bit of violence among people can be useful, so can government intervention or regulation bear some valuable fruit.

Consider what Elizabeth Kolbert wrote some time ago for the New Yorker Web site concerning President Obama’s choice for energy secretary, Steven Chu, and his enthusiastic defense of government intervention:

“In the mid-1970s, California–the state Chu lived in–set about establishing the country’s first refrigerator-efficiency standards. Refrigerator manufacturers, of course, fought them. The standards couldn’t be met, they said, at anything like a price consumers could afford. California imposed the standards anyway, and then what happened, as Chu observed, is that ‘the manufacturers had to assign the job to the engineers, instead of to the lobbyists.’ The following decade, standards were imposed for refrigerators nationwide. Since then, the size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than 10 percent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy use has dropped by two-thirds.”

Let’s give Chu credit for at least making the effort to defend government regulation–post bureaucrats treat it as their God given authority. But I am also tempted to mention here how Benito Mussolini was able to make the trains run on time back in the days he ruled Italy as a fascist dictator. Thus it is important here to recall a wise saying by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, namely, that “One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy” (NE I.1098a18). And again, true enough, now and then smacking someone who is acting hysterically could calm him down, yet it would be folly to adopt smacking people around as a general policy by which to help them cope.

Or again, a bit more technically, the imposition of the refrigeration manufacturing standards in California is used by Mr. Chu as an explanation of both the increase in the efficiency of refrigerators nationwide and the cut in half of their price since the imposition was made. But there is a famous fallacy of informal logic that’s in evidence in Mr. Chu’s reasoning, namely, post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore on account of this). No one could tell at the time the California government imposed these standards that only by doing so will the desired efficiency and price drop be produced. Indeed, in many cases in which government intrudes by establishing, by law, standards like this the market has already begun to do it, albeit peacefully, without the use of coercive force and the heavy cost of bureaucracy (like ho cigarette smoking began to subside way before government waged its war on smokers).

I am convinced that government regulation is an improper way to run people’s lives, even if now and then it may appear or even prove to be a bit helpful. Would be good thing of Mr Chu & Co. would agree with this.