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At some point in our lives, most of us will run up against a government regulation that seems to make no sense. While most people tend to believe that the government has their best interest at heart, there are also times when even the most devout supporter of a tightly regulated economy finds that a particular rule defies all attempts at logical interpretation. Why is this so? Why do lawmakers enact laws that are plainly ridiculous?
Regulations are made by politicians and bureaucrats, but these people are typically not experts in any field other than politics. By their very nature, they are less concerned with the economy, the environment, and national defense than they are with getting reelected. Policy makers are therefore almost invariably unqualified to perform the job for which they were elected. This lack of expertise necessitates that they solicit the opinions of others on policy matters, opinions which typically come from powerful lobbyists with a monetary interest in obscuring, or at least bending, the truth. This is not a new problem--Plato recognized it in The Republic, when he lamented that kings were not also philosophers--yet today we are no closer to solving it than were the ancient Greeks.
The consequences of this mismatch of skills and power are seen in a series of unhelpful, unscientific regulations based on emotions and assumptions, for example, the bans on plastic grocery bags being increasingly adopted by more progressively-minded cities across the country. While not itself the most egregious or harmful of regulations, the plastic bag bans are indicative of the larger problem, providing a clear example that is almost unanimously recognized as needless and ineffective.
These regulations fail in every sense of the term. Reusable cloth bags are less safe, more expensive and worse for the environment than disposable plastic ones. They trap bacteria from leaking meat and dairy products and increase the risk of illness, they cost more and hold less and their carbon footprint is 173 times greater than that of a plastic bag. The science is perfectly clear on this and always has been. So why do these regulations keep gaining ground in the face of all rational thought?
The answer is that cloth bags “feel” more natural than plastic ones, and we have been conditioned to believe that “more natural” is equivalent to “better,” despite the fact that smallpox, scorpions, arsenic and tornadoes are all perfectly natural horrors.
Public Choice Theory in economics teaches us that politicians, rather than being benevolent advocates for all things good and pure, are just as self-interested as the rest of us. This means that they tend to base their decisions less on what is right, and more on what polls well. Hence, feel good laws that do more harm than good. As citizens, it is our duty to hold politicians accountable for their lapses in legislative judgment using the incentives they understand best. The next time you see a regulation that runs counter to common sense, let your legislators know that it could well cost them their job.
However, perhaps a bigger problem than the politicians themselves are the unelected bureaucrats who end up designing the bulk of regulatory policy. Whereas politicians can be removed from office by popular vote, bureaucrats are, for all intents and purposes, accountable to no one. Organizations such as the Transportation Security Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency have been given free rein to regulate as they see fit, with no observable consequences for their failures. If we are to be free from the grip of endless, pointless, economically unproductive regulations, we must find a way to strip these agencies of their now nearly limitless authority and return the power to the people and their duly elected representatives.