Hold on loosely: The folly of too much government control

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

— C.S. Lewis

The cartoon image that holds strong among the more tribal 31members of the rightward side of our political spectrum is that members of the left are power-mad tyrants who don’t care about good government or taking good care of people so much as they want to just boss everyone around. It’s the mirror image of the trope on the left that conservatives are all racist fascists who would punch Mother Earth in the face if she had a face to punch — and no less intellectually dishonest.

The truth is that most of the lawmakers in Carson City are well-meaning enough. But most of them have also have little or no understanding of the things they wish to regulate, and too many lack the wisdom to appreciate just how much they don’t know. And armed with the absolute conviction that the more they regulate us for our own good the better off we’ll all be, they are poised to do real and lasting harm to the people and economy of this state.

Last week I wrote about one example of this – in an effort to “improve” legal representation of those too poor to afford an attorney, some legislators want to make it more of a pain in the butt to be a criminal defense attorney (an already difficult job) by spending money on unnecessary red tape and extra “supervision.” What starry-eyed law student doesn’t yearn for more of that?

This week, two more such examples caught my attention.

The first is an inevitable reaction to a Democratic campaign mainstay – raising the minimum wage, which does nothing to improve anyone’s quality of life because it only serves to make everything more expensive (including for the people getting the raise in hourly pay). It also has the predictable but unhappy consequence of eliminating some jobs altogether because when labor becomes too expense, companies look for alternatives to paying human beings, like automated kiosks.

One may fairly decry the loss of jobs or the continuing evaporation of real live human face-to-face interaction that self-checkout lanes or cumbersome McDonald’s touchscreens represent, but no one can reasonably claim to be surprised that loud calls to increase the minimum wage helped lead us down that path. To be sure, some degree of automation is inevitable in any industry as technology advances, but clearly increasing labor costs are an extra motivator. That predictable cause-effect relationship might lead a sane person to say “Hmm. Maybe we should rethink the original idea that caused the problem in the first place.”

But rethinking implies taking a step back, and there’s no time for self-reflection if we’re going to be Progressive! Always moving forward means never looking back at the consequences of your actions. But people are still upset at the mess that’s been made, and that leads us to AB394, which would force employers to pay unemployment taxes on their self-serve machines as if they were biological employees. (I don’t know about you, but I envisioned the origins of the inevitable robot uprising happening a little differently.)

Such taxes would make all sorts of things more expensive and less convenient. The description in the bill applies not just to fast food ordering, but also to ATMs (remember what a pain it was to get cash before they were installed on every corner?), gas pumps, car washes, laundromats, vending machines, Redboxes, phone booths… And if personal phone purchase transactions to buy things via the internet aren’t included in the law now, you can bet it’s the logical next step.

The taxes won’t prevent these devices from becoming increasingly common because machines don’t call in sick, show up late, or forget their uniform, but they will make everything more expensive. This will hurt the poorest people the most, who were also the ones who lost their jobs because of the sharp minimum wage hikes in the first place. And companies such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, which can afford to absorb the higher overhead costs of higher wages, play along cheerfully — knowing that those same high costs of labor strangle their potential startup competitors in the womb.

And from there, the progressive “solutions” which try to put thumbs on scales of basic economic laws just keep getting worse and worse and worse and worse.

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A similarly “simple” bill which would have lasting and catastrophic effects on our most vulnerable citizens is AB462, which prohibits any new charter schools from being approved for the next two years. Because what Nevada really needs right now are fewer quality tuition-free public schools.

What is the purpose of this law? Our largest counties can’t build schools fast enough, and their construction costs are through the roof (and will get even more expensive if the union bosses who control the Democratic party have their way this session). If there was no demand for alternatives to the poorly led Washoe and Clark County school districts, such schools wouldn’t be seeking charters in the first place. (Seriously – read this brief interview with WCSD superintendent Traci Davis. You’d be looking for alternatives to her monopoly, too.)

The argument is that if only traditional public schools had the per-pupil funding the charter schools have, all of the public education problems in this state would go away, which sounds reasonable right up until you look at actual data. It turns out that charter schools spend less tax dollars per student. And in my family’s experience, we get way more bang for our bucks. And more money is freed up for traditional public schools, which are also less crowded. Win-win, right?

Charters are harder to centrally control, though, which makes them harder to regulate with one-size-fits-all rules from a distance. Whether you see this as a feature or a bug will depend entirely on your hunger to control thousands of other families at a distance, or your level of trust in the parents of other kids. Sometimes a charter school will stink, and be shut down. But that still beats a total monopoly, where a single person’s bad leadership can harm every school, and where only the most wealthy families have an escape hatch.

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Even if every single member of the Legislature was pure of heart and as wise as a human being could be, they would not or could not know or care as much about your business or children or health-care needs as you do. Legislators who think they need to control those decisions for you will always hose it up for just that reason.

The best regulators and leaders are the ones who know what they don’t – and can’t – know, and limit themselves accordingly. On the other hand, those who attempt to control what they don’t understand (and because they don’t understand) are dangerous – all the more so if they be well-meaning folks acting with the approval of their own consciences for everyone else’s own good.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.