Friday, July 31, 2009

Comment rescue: Government by blackmail

Tyler recently posted on the Federal government's intent to withhold highway funds from States unless they pass legislation making driving while texting illegal. This is, of course, the same mechanism that the Feds used to force States to lower speed limits in the 1970s and to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense over the past decade.

Progressives, with Dana Garrett standing in as our exemplar today, think this is exactly what government should be doing:

I read that texting while driving is just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. If the Feds said to states who had no laws against drunk driving "No bucks until you pass such laws," then I'd say Amen because those states are acting against the public interest. Therefore, if texting is just as dangerous as drving drunk, then I think the Feds making this condition is a great idea.

This is my response:

Let's unpack the consequences of your position, Dana.

Federal highway funds pay for multiple safety-related issues on State roadways, from improved crash barriers to sobriety check points.

It is therefore your position that if a State disagrees with the Federal government over the propriety of safety measure X that an enlightened response is to refuse to fund all other safety measures?

Yep. That's enlightened paternalism from the progressive state, all right: government by blackmail.

Dana offered this rejoinder:

"It is therefore your position that if a State disagrees with the Federal government over the propriety of safety measure X that an enlightened response is to refuse to fund all other safety measures"

States disagree w/ an established fact? Your use of "disagree" is a monument to liberal hermeneutics. They might as well disagree that jumping off tall buildings is bad for your health. [Followed by two citations on studies showing driving while texting is dangerous.]

This difference of opinion needs to be unpacked, because it highlights a major distinction between progressives and libertarians [who actually agree on lots of issues].

When it comes to issues of safety, progressives generally take an ends justify the means approach, and consider it acceptable for the Federal government to demand compliance with specific regulations even if the Feds do so by threatening to make conditions even more unsafe.

Don't agree with the Feds on speed limits, seat belts, or driving while texting? Then the Feds will remove all money for better guard rails, repaving dangerous roads, installing new stoplights, conducting DUI checkpoint....

According to progressives, this is perfectly acceptable as long as their cause represents an established fact, usually pontificated with the bland assurance that science has spoken and only the irrational would dispute these demands, therefore justifying placing other citizens at increased risk.

But the first question should be: is the science by which the Feds make these decisions so immaculate and disinterested?

And the answer is: not really. Decisions about what to study, who funds the studies, and how the recommendations are made are the dirty little secrets of the whole process. Let's take the example of seat belt use on school buses, which only two States (New York and New Jersey) mandate.

Here's the kind of arguments that a major industry lobbying group has used to keep States [much less the Federal government] from passing laws to require seat belts on school buses:

Seat belts are of no value in the majority of fatal accidents.

More children are killed around school buses -- walking to and from the school bus stop -- than inside school buses.

No data proves conclusively that seat belts reduce fatalities or injuries on school buses.

School buses are specifically designed with safety in mind. They are heavier and experience less crash force than smaller cars and trucks.

School buses also have high padded seats specifically design to absorb impact.

There is no guarantee that once installed students will use seatbelts. Studies have shown that mixed and improper use of seat belts can increase the risk of injuries.

There is concern that seat belts could be used as weapons to strike or choke other passengers.

Money proposed for seat belt installation could be better spent on other safety measures.

[Obviously the folks who worry that school children will beat each other do death with the buckles have met my children, but I digress.]

Look at the quality of these arguments. Because more children get injured walking to the bus stop we shouldn't make them safer on the bus? No data proves that seat bealts reduce fatalities or injuries? Improper use of seat belts could increase injuries? Some lobbying group, huh?

Except that, uh, these are not the talking points of an industry lobbying group, they are the talking points of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Or consider that insurance company studies have repeatedly found that eating while driving is just as distracting and dangerous as drunk driving or [by implication] cell phone usage? Why hasn't the NHTSA demanded that eating while driving be made a primary offense?

The real answer is that the decision of which actions will be considered for Federal implementation is rarely an immaculate scientifie process, but a political process.

Besides, there is already on the books in virtually every State a law that covers cell phone usage at the wheel: inattentive driving.

But that's not sufficient for many of our progressive friends, who want to go even farther: banning the possession of a switched-on cell phone in the passenger compartment of any vehicle--not just those being operated by the driver.

This sort of behavior has two consequences: (1) it increases risks for other people; and (2) it encourages the government to use blackmail in situations that are hardly life and death.

1) Let's try a thought experiment. Delaware misses the deadline for passing a Driving While Texting law. The Feds withhold money for fixing guardrails on Route 1. Because the guardrails are not replaced, a mother driving loses control on the ice, and--swerving off the road--smashes through a barrier that was never replaced, rolls her car, and kills both children in the back seat. Is the Federal government justified in increasing her risks while driving in order to force Delaware to pass specific pieces of legislation? Progressive say Yes. Of course they don't fund any studies to examine the increased risks created via government by blackmail.

2) Recently the Federal Department of Education has followed suit with the NHTSA by threatening to withhold millions in Federal education funds from States that don't keep testing statistics in a manner that satisfies the educrats. For example, in California, where students are already suffering from massive budget cuts, the Feds are now demanding that the State change its laws on teacher assessments or the Department of Education will take even more money away from inner-city children, children who do not speak English fluently, students with special needs.

This is ethical progressive behavior on the part of the State, right progressives? You don't do exactly what we want, and we will penalize your students by starving your schools of money....

Notice how the argument slips from the Feds preventing harm [texting while driving] to the Feds merely enforcing what it considers to be a comparative advantage [certain forms of teacher evaluation], and doing both through blackmail.

There are, to my mind, legitimate reasons for Federal intervention in certain activities by the State: States trying to circumvent the US Constitution to deny voting rights based on exra-constitutional and non-constitutional laws comes to mind as one example. States subverting due process laws would be another.

But the idea that the Federal government should be empowered to increase the risks for other drivers or for school children in order to enforce compliance with its mandates is where Libertarians draw a line that Progressives apparently do not even see.

This is the quotation placed in the mouth of H. G. Wells in the movie Time After Time:

The first man to raise a fist is the man who has run out of ideas.

Pretty much describes government tactics in insuring compliance with its wishes.


Anonymous said...

How about a study of how dangerous doing your make up is? eating? reading a book? playing with your satellite radio?

we ned laws on all of those! if the government won't tell me how to be safe than i am a very dangerous person.

tom said...

"...based on exra-constitutional and non-constitutional laws"

OK, I understand your hesitance to say "unconstitutional" because that is reserved for the proclamations of the Supreme Court, which lowly peons like us should not presume to understand or evaluate.

But what is the difference between ex[t]ra-constitutional laws and non-constitutional laws?

Anonymous said...

Great story as always.

I don't type that enough.

Delaware Watch said...

I plan on responding to this on DW. But given my schedule and other matters, it might not appear until Sunday.

Steve Newton said...

Don't bust your ass. As much fun as the back and forth is, real life has to take precedence, and sometimes by three days later there is something more interesting or important to write.

Not trying to talk you out of it, just sayin'

Steve Newton said...

I'm nitpicking in a stereotypically academic way; I had just read a book that made this distinction for--I am ashamed to admit--reasons I can't even remember.

tom said...

And I was just taking advantage of the opportunity to make a sarcastic comment. Don't worry about it.