People tell me that I get overly worked up about small government regulations. But small matters. The building of civilization is revealed in small steps, tiny, bit-by-bit improvements in the things we have and do. In the same way, seemingly small government regulations can cause a reversal of the magnificent world that enterprise has built. Under the right conditions, these can create human catastrophes.
So I offer the following scenario, based on real events very recently in the northeast of the U.S.. It is a composite of cases where government regulation is more than just a menace; it becomes absolutely life threatening.
A summer storm comes and kills your electricity for days. A tree falls on your deck, and you need to cut it away just to get out the back door. You find your chainsaw, but it is out of gas. You reach for the gas can, but the new federal regulations make it nearly impossible to pour. You hack the can with a knife because the drill doesn’t work, and you transfer the gas to another bottle and adding the gas to the saw.
Still, the saw won’t work. The gas seems no better than water. Then you remember what you had read about the new gas. The ethanol mandates, stemming from 2005 legislation, have made gas difficult to store. The corn-based additives absorb water, and the mixture loses its ability to burn after a time, depending on climate. You had heard of buyrealgas.com, but you had thought that was a kooky service for preppers, maybe useful for boaters but not you.
So you hop in the car and set out for new gasoline. The storms have caused the usual anti-gouging mania. Station owners have been hauled before Congress in the past just for having raised prices in a storm — a time when they should be raising prices. Stations fear bad PR and even laws against the practice, and so they can’t properly ration supplies.
You drive and drive, but every gas station in a 10-mile radius of your house is out of gas. In fact, after all this driving, you are nearly out of gas. You creep home and beg the neighbor for some gas, but he has the same problems: bad can, and the stored gas doesn’t work right.
Fortunately, he has another can left over from the old days with good gas in it. Together, you empty out the old gas from the saw and put in new gas. The engine starts, but only in fits, and the sound is uneven. Finally, it sputters to a halt.
What is it this time? It’s the carburetor. Just then, you remember another sad fact about corn-based ethanol. It leaves a sticky residue in your engine, kind of like corn syrup, which is not surprising given the makeup of ethanol. That’s why all the stores sell so many tank additives that promise to clean out the muck from your engine. But it’s too late for this one.
All these gas additive products weren’t even around 25 years ago. Why are they necessary now? It’s the same reason there are so many cleaning additives for laundry. The essential stuff that makes things work, whether gas or detergent, has been despoiled and degraded by federal regulations that mandate certain ingredients. Never mind performance: It’s all under the guise of saving the environment.
But your environment isn’t being saved right now. You have a tree all over your back porch, your electricity is out, you are nearly out of gas in your car and there’s no gas to be had anywhere. You can’t even charge your phone, and you have only 40% of its power remaining.
Forget the Internet. You have the ability to get online through a 3G network, but doing that would waste scarce power. You have about eight hours remaining on your phone at best, and that needs to be used for a more-serious emergency. Facebook, which would be a wonderful way to communicate with people you love, has to wait.
You look around and realize something ghastly. In a matter of hours and without much warning, the whole of your life has collapsed. There is no way out. You are completely dependent on city workers coming around to fix things. But they will fix only so much. Why? Because the city hopes that the federal government will declare the place a “disaster area” so that the city can get federal aid — aid you will never see. So the mess has to stay just as it is for days, maybe for weeks.
The kids are screaming. Fortunately, no one needs immediate medical help. You long ago stopped stocking up on medicines, because the regulations don’t allow it. Not even medicine to unclog noses can be hoarded. The federal government keeps a list of how much you have bought in the last month. And forget painkillers. Those are barely even available through prescription.
True, the aged person living in your house is lacking essentials. You hope that oxygen isn’t necessary, because the machine doesn’t work. You might have bought a generator, but that wouldn’t have helped. You have no fuel, little food and your means of communicating with the outside world are dwindling down by the minute.
You know that the pools of water in your backyard could quickly breed killer mosquitoes in a day, especially in this heat. But you also know that the insecticides you can get at the store now are weak and just short of worthless. The strong stuff was pushed out of the marketplace by more regulations some 10 years ago. You will just have to stay indoors, even though the temperature is hotter and hotter.
There’s only one thing left to do. Embrace your despair, and be happy that you can light a candle and read a physical book. You wait and hope to be saved.
Now consider all the ways in which the above scenario might have been different absent the central plan that has been imposed, allegedly with the goal of saving you. Without anti-gouging regulations, gas would have been more expensive, but at least it would have been plentiful. Even then, you probably wouldn’t have needed it, because both the gas line and the gas in the can would’ve worked (since it would have a vent, just as gas cans always had until the new mandates wrecked them).
This way, you could have used the gas in your car to keep your cellphone charged and working. You could have used Twitter and Facebook all you wanted, and everyone would have known your whereabouts and well-being.
The chainsaw would have been fully functional, with an engine that stayed clean and worked every time, even when not used in years. You could have cut your tree and helped your neighbors with theirs. City workers would have already been out on the job helping to clean things up. The absence of federal aid would have made them alone responsible for the results, and they would have a mayor breathing down their neck, rather than a mayor with his hand out to Washington.
All these seemingly small regulations may not seem like much in ordinary times. But in extraordinary times, they can make the difference between life and death. A natural disaster we can deal with. A man-made disaster such as that imposed by thick layers of crufty, enterprise-destroying regulations are a far greater problem because they are permanent, cumulative, and imposed at the point of a gun.
The regulators play with our products and our lives as if they know better than we do what’s good for us. To the political class, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as managing the lives and property of others. But when the unexpected happens, the mischief they do begins to reveal terrible things. Suddenly, the denial of our freedom to manage our own lives matters a great deal.
This is the point at which we slap our heads and ask ourselves, “How and why did we let them do this to us?” They wrecked our home appliances. They ruined the paint on our walls, making it dingy and unstable. They degraded makeup, detergent and unclogging agents. Insecticides don’t work. They ruined our toilets, our refrigerators, our lawn mowers, our water heaters, our showers and even our furniture by declaring sofa cushions to be too flammable.
Small things, right? They all add up to a giant thing. They set out to make an environmental utopia for us, a world of perfect safety that leaves no human footprint, and instead they created a hell of dependency in which we have no choice but to join the rest of the drones who sit and wait for the bureaucrats to bail us out of our troubles. And the bureaucrats take their own sweet time, unless you own a gun, in which case they will be right over to take it from you.
We look for someone to blame. The politicians who passed the laws are all out of office, while their legacy lives on in the concrete palaces inhabited by lifetime bureaucrats, who are never subject to any election and who make more money living off your income than you do by actually producing things that people want. The predatory class is destroying the host, yet no one has a clue about what to do to make it stop.
But there are things you can do. You can become aware. You can stop trusting them and stop deferring to them. If enough people do, history can turn on a dime. We can all decide that man-made catastrophe need not be our fate.