The high cost of busybodies: part IV

Thomas Sowell

12/5/2003 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

During the gasoline shortage that began in 1979, motorists were often waiting in long lines of cars at filling stations -- sometimes for hours -- in hopes of reaching the pump before the gas ran out. The ways that Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan proposed to deal with this situation speaks volumes about the difference between the left and the right.

Senator Kennedy said: "We must adopt a system of gasoline rationing without delay," in "a way that demands a fair sacrifice from all Americans."

Ronald Reagan said that we must get rid of price controls on petroleum, so that there won't be a shortage in the first place. One of his first acts after becoming president was to end federal price controls. Lines at filling stations disappeared.

Despite angry outcries from liberals that gas prices would skyrocket as Big Oil "gouged" the public, in reality prices came down within months and continued falling for years. More taxes were piled onto gasoline by the government but the real cost of the gas itself hit a new low by 1993.

"Fairness" is one of the great mantras of the left. Since everyone has his own definition of fairness, that word is a blank check for the expansion of government power. What "fairness" means in practice is that third parties -- busybodies -- can prevent mutual accommodations by others.

Busybodies not only prevent farmers from selling their land to people who would build housing on it, they prevent people on waiting lists for organ transplants from paying someone to donate a kidney or a liver that can be the difference between life and death.

Like Ted Kennedy, the organ donation bureaucracy is preoccupied with imposing their notions of fairness on people who are on waiting lists. And, like Senator Kennedy, they have no interest in freeing people to reduce or eliminate the shortage, which could make fairness in rationing a moot issue.

Such thinking -- or lack of thinking -- is not new. Back in the 18th century, Adam Smith wrote of politicians who devote "a most unnecessary attention" to things that would work themselves out better in a free market.

What is conventionally called "the free market" is in reality free people making their own mutual accommodations with other free people. It is one of the many tactical mistakes of conservatives to use an impersonal phrase to describe very personal choices and actions by people when they are not hamstrung by third parties.

When the issue is posed as "the free market" versus "compassion for the poor," which do you think is likely to win out?

Our bloated and ever-growing welfare state -- from which the poor get a very small share, by the way -- answers that question.

The fatal attraction of government is that it allows busybodies to impose decisions on others without paying any price themselves. That enables them to act as if there were no price, even when there are ruinous prices -- paid by others.

Millions of people's lives are made worse in innumerable ways, in order that a relative handful of busybodies can feel important and superior. Artificially high land prices in those places where busybodies reign politically, based on land use restrictions, make housing costs a crushing burden on people of average incomes.

Some of the busybodies imagine that they are preventing "over-crowding" or "traffic congestion." But what they are really doing is moving the crowding somewhere else, since people have to live somewhere, regardless.

As for traffic congestion, that is made needlessly worse because of long-distance commuting by those people whose incomes will not permit them to live in the artificially more expensive communities where they work. It is not uncommon in liberal California communities for many commuters to spend 3 or 4 hours a day in their cars, fighting traffic -- all for the greater glory of those with the mantra of "open space."

Because of the innumerable problems caused by busybodies who devote "a most unnecessary attention" to things that would be better without them, the rest of us should devote some very necessary attention to these busybodies and their sloppy arguments.