Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Invisible government

Marc Ambinder praises the government we don't see:
Most of us don't notice (because it's invisible) when government programs allow us to sleep well at night. We never really worry that airplanes are going to crash, or that trucks with hazardous materials that trundle by each morning are going to explode; or whether the electricity is going to be on today, or whether the Internet is going to be "on," or whether the breakfast food we eat is going to poison us, or whether a bridge is going to collapse as we drive to work, or whether, if we have a heart attack and no health insurance, the ER doc isn't going to give us an ECG.
It's fair to conclude from reading this that Ambinder is a dolt. After all, he would have us believe that -- absent government intervention -- he would board airlines that had a reputation for crashing and eat poisonous breakfast foods without regard to their history of sickening those who consume them. Apparently government is all that stands between him and his own poor decision-making that would lead to his death. Just as a parent must warn their children not to make a meal out of dirt, sand or yellow snow, Ambinder apparently needs to look to the government for reassurance over those goods and services he should consume. 

To be clear, Ambinder in fact appears possess at least average intelligence. What he appears to lack, however, are critical thinking skills. Does he not realize that airlines, regardless of government regulation, already have an enormous incentive to promote safe flying? Even if airlines secretly loathe the passengers that keep them operating and have no regard for their safety, surely they (or their insurance companies) don't take lightly the prospect of losing valuable airplanes (the price of the mid-size Boeing 767, for example, starts at over $150 million). Suffice to say that the personnel who actually fly the planes would also seem to have a substantial stake in the planes not crashing. Perhaps the biggest factor, however, is reputational risk, as passengers are generally keen on avoiding those airlines with a history of their planes crashing. 

In fact, taking this analysis one step further, the case can even be made that government airline regulation actually makes us less safe. Given that government does not have to bear the costs of the regulation it produces, it is almost certainly the case that the marginal benefit of rules and regulations promulgated by the government -- beyond those that the private sector would voluntarily adopt absent government intervention -- are not greater than or equal to their marginal cost. Thus, government regulation is causing airline prices to be higher than what they would otherwise be, which in turn encourages consumers to take other, more dangerous forms of transportation such as cars. 

A similar dynamic is at play with breakfast foods. Given that consumers generally prefer to avoid eating poison, any company that fails to guarantee the safety of its food is placing itself on the fast track towards bankruptcy. The trucking example is similarly dubious, as exploding trucks filled with hazardous material would almost certainly result in a lawsuit with substantial financial penalties. 

The bridge citation, meanwhile, is rather questionable as well. Five years ago a government-maintained bridge in Minneapolis did in fact collapse during rush hour traffic, resulting in several fatalities. One can't help but speculate whether a privately-operated bridge would have done the same, as the operator would have had a financial self-interest in maintaining the bridge's continuous operation so that tolls could be collected. 

The failure of imagination here, or to take into consideration the very real factors that determine marketplace behavior, is fairly stunning. 

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