Friday, January 30, 2009

Hope and desperation

I’m quite hard on American liberals, and I make no apologies for that. That said, whereas liberal pundits and politicians often make me dismayed or angry, most liberalism (or conservatism, for that matter) in the average person just makes me feel sad. That’s been amplified by the Barack Obama phenomenon.

As I’ve said before, in practice American liberalism is not about expanding government power to help the needy or combat exploitation by big business, it is about exploiting fear of big business and sympathy for the needy to build up government power, but it succeeds because so few liberals actually understand that. There’s a lot of bad ideas and deplorable motivations among liberals, but there’s good too, and it’s awful to watch as so many people’s admirable motivations- compassion for the suffering, the desire to protect the vulnerable- are twisted back on themselves by those stronger and more cunning. That's a constant feature of politics, but it's especially glaring now in the afterglow of Obama's coronation. The orgy of pork, corporate welfare, and general jobbery that the government's "stimulus" efforts will inevitably produce are no doubt just the beginning.

It will be interesting to see how public opinion evolves as reality asserts itself. Like most libertarians, I have little doubt what that reality will be. Obama will not fix the economy. He will not bring a new age of national unity and fellowship. He will not do anything positive about the drug laws, welfare statism, dysfunctional education system, or barriers to economic success that wreak such havoc on millions of black Americans. Whether or not Obama is sincere is beside the point; whenever his intentions, he will not be what people dream of him being.

I suspect that we'll be seeing a lot of denial as the disappointments mount. President Bush had millions of people who believed in him no matter how severely he violated the ideal of limited government he claimed to support. (An ideal I think many conservatives still believe in, buried though it is under a mountain of partisan loyalty, intellectual confusion, desperation, and fear. Rank-and-file conservatives and rank-and-file liberals often seem to have a pretty similar relationship to their professed principles.) And George W. Bush didn't enter office on the sort of tidal wave of desperate adulation Obama is enjoying.

Like a drowning man, people threatened with the destruction of hope will cling to anything. People will try to justify or rationalize the failures and the betrayals of promises. People will reconcile themselves to things that would have rightly appalled them if Bush had done it. (See Cheryl Cline's recent post for an example.) Some of that is just cynical partisan politicking, but I think a lot of it is sincere- the death of a beloved hope is so agonizing that people often warp or just deny their own perceptions to avoid that pain. This is a common phenomenon that we've all probably witnessed. It's not hard to find relationships and marriages where one partner is blatantly unfaithful, exploitative, or abusive, and yet the victimized partner has convinced himself or herself that things are okay, that their partner is a good person who loves them.

There is no field of life that offers and then crushes hope as extravagantly as politics. And so, millions of people will end up trying to defend and justify Obama no matter what he does, no matter how much he fails or betrays the dreams he filled people with. Their longing for the good things Obama promises will lead millions to support, against their own ideals, all the bad he causes.

Thus, we see illustrated one of the most striking features of the state and of statist ideologies, which is how effective they are at warping good motivations and sentiments into support for unjust actions and destructive results- in short, of transmuting good into evil. That so many people think of it as not only a benevolent institution, but as the primary means of doing good and expressing what is best in our society, is a terrible irony indeed.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lawless legislation

My last post brought up the story of Jack Melton, an elderly man who ran afoul of an obscure law by selling fruitcakes he had made in his own home rather than at a commercial bakery. Last time I wrote about some economic aspects of the story, but there’s another angle that’s also worth looking at.

Melton did not go sneaking around at night, covertly selling his cakes in dark alleys and cackling about how the police would never catch him. Instead, he openly advertised for customers. He clearly had no idea he was doing anything illegal. Why should he have? The rules he violated are likely buried deep in the bowels of some phonebook-sized tome of regulations, and selling homemade fruitcake is hardly the sort of clearly improper activity that a reasonable person would simply assume to be illegal.

This illustrates the limitations of “the rule of law” in America. Usually, that concept includes the requirement that the law be publicly made known in advance, so that citizens know what is required of them and cannot be arbitrarily persecuted. This is a concept familiar to classical liberals and libertarians; Friedrich Hayek in particular considered it one of the cornerstones of a free society. In theory, the United States mostly fulfills that requirement- legislation and the rules of regulatory agencies are public knowledge. (Though even here there are exceptions- for instance, many “anti-gouging” laws give essentially no explanation of what the law requires.)

In practice, the laws and regulations a citizen is expected to follow in the modern U.S. are so numerous, so arcane, so rapidly changing, and often so obscure and so difficult to understand, as to create a situation that is often all but indistinguishable from one where they are kept secret. The problem is aggravated by the fact that only a small percentage of them have any relation to widely accepted customs or moral concepts that one could reasonably expect every citizen to know.

It is quite easy to break the law by sheer chance, and it is likely only because government officials often do not enforce the rules to the hilt at every opportunity- whether out of sloth, compassion, or sheer whim- that many of us are not being blindsided with punishments for obscure infractions on a regular basis. Of course, this also means that a government official often has all manner of entirely legal means of tormenting you, should he take a dislike to you. Indeed, the system would likely be considered completely intolerable even by arch-statists if all the rules were rigorously enforced. Arbitrariness and unpredictability is inevitable, and would be so even if every government official was scrupulously honest and selfless

Obviously, this is a matter of degree- no human legal system can ever have perfect clockwork regularity and predictability, and there are countries much worse than America in this regard. Nevertheless, it could certainly be a lot better, too, and the more numerous and intrusive the laws of a country, the more that country is necessarily characterized by the rule of men and not that of law.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

The dread scourge of unlicensed Christmas desserts

Hello, all! Unfortunately, my ill-fated holiday season sapped a lot of my energy, so I’ve been out of action for a bit. It’s good to be back.

It’s always comforting to know that the government is protecting us from nightmarish menaces like this: (Hat tip: Hit and Run)

Shasta County health officials are cracking down on an 86-year-old disabled World War II veteran who has been selling homemade fruitcakes for more than a decade.

The Department of Environmental Health cites an obscure law banning food businesses in private homes.

Jack Melton of Redding gave away many of his pecan-filled fruitcakes. But health officials saw a small handmade window sign offering some for sale.

Health specialist Fern Hastings says Melton must use a commercial bakery that has passed a health inspection even if he gives his cakes to the public.

The threat posed by elderly World War II veterans with access to unlicensed baking equipment cannot be overstated. Back when I was in high school, my Uncle Bob died tragically when he was decapitated by a piece of rye bread my grandfather had recklessly over-toasted. Remember the glass pane scene in The Omen? Just like that.

This is a nice example of the numerous little things the government does to inhibit small entrepreneurs- remember, Melton ran afoul of a prohibition on the distribution of cakes not made in a “commercial bakery.” A lot of government restrictions on business, combined with things like zoning laws, serve the purpose of suppressing forms of entrepreneurship that would otherwise be accessible to huge swaths of the population, including many people too poor to invest in any sort of new production equipment or training, simply using equipment and skills they already have- running a jitney service with your own car, cutting styling hair out of your own home, fixing appliances and machines in your garage, and so on. (See also Wendy McElroy on cottage industries.)

Even when such activity is not illegal, the government can often make it such a pain in the ass to comply with all the bureaucracy and regulations that it isn’t worth it, or is too daunting a task to get started on. (Or is done off the books, which creates a risk of punishment and leaves the businessman without access to the courts.) It’s often pointed out that, due to some of the fixed costs involved, regulatory compliance often disproportionately burdens smaller firms. This factor would become most extreme in a one-man business, especially if the entrepreneur is poor and using household goods as capital.

Regulation also poses a particular barrier two entrepreneurial efforts by the poor in another way, which I haven’t seen mentioned as much. If your childhood education was of low quality, you’re at a disadvantage in researching and dealing with all the rules that apply to you. This is even more of a potential problem if you were born elsewhere and English is not your first language.

The example seen here, baked goods, is another obvious candidate for something many people could do- plenty of people know how to cook, almost everyone already owns an oven, and necessary materials are a few dollars at the grocery store. Time requirements are not overwhelming- you don’t have to sit continuously by the oven while you’re baking something- so it’s something that can be done by a homemaker or someone who already works out of the house. It’s also an area where average people with no special training can often produce products that are better than most of what is available in stores- my mother routinely made cookies much better than what the grocery had, for instance. And, of course, the very nature of the operation provides a built-in incentive for honesty and safety- your customers know where you live. You’re not going to make a living at it, but it’s certainly a way many people could supplement their income.

Doing something like that probably doesn’t occur to all that many people. Most people don’t sit around trying to figure out ways to run businesses from their house or engage in other small-scale local entrepreneurship, of course, and so don’t directly feel the burden of not being allowed to, but I suspect that is itself largely a product of the legal environment.

People imitate successful examples. In the sort of highly regulated environment that ensnared Jack Melton, positive local entrepreneurial role models are discouraged or prevented from arising in the first place. If the economy suddenly became laissez-faire, most modern Americans still wouldn’t start looking around for new, independent forms of trade and production that they could pursue, because they haven’t seen it and don’t think of it themselves. However, simply allowing the few that do hit upon the idea on their own to succeed unmolested will show more people that it can be done and inspire more people to make their own attempts, which will create more positive examples, and so on and so on until doing it no longer strikes a people as odd. In such a culture, the legal regime we have now would seem absurdly constrictive.

If large numbers of people started engaging in small-scale entrepreneurship of this sort, alone or in small groups, many established firms would start to feel the pinch in two ways. There would be a horde of tiny competitors nibbling away bits and pieces of market share. Further, some people who start out working from their home or garage may grow enough to become bigger contenders in their field, and thus a rival to the established players. In this respect, many regulations that discourage small-scale entrepreneurship have an effect much like one of the effects of minimum wage laws, which can make people with extremely limited skills unemployable and thus unable to get work experience and skills that would make them more competitive workers. Likewise, if you have little business experience and little capital, the regulatory state makes it harder to acquire more of either. The bottom rungs of the ladder have been sawed off.

I think a number of fields in the economy, especially many services and household goods, would be considerably more competitive with these forces unleashed, with newer firms rising up to challenge incumbents at an accelerated rate and a relentless swarm of small-timers and part-timers forever gnawing away at the edges. Of course, no one likes being gnawed at by relentless swarms of things, least of all the people already on top with the most to lose, so there are numerous businesses with a vested interest in preserving or strengthening the current system, and the means to get it done- largely, in one of life’s nasty ironies, thanks to the aid of their alleged foes.

I’ve got a bit more to say, but his has become rather long already, so I think I’ll save it for another post.

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