Auburn, Alabama, experienced some tornado damage the other day, and the place was just a mess. Trees were down. Houses had collapse. Fences were in tatters. Yards were trash heaps. The damage was not major by any standard but there was plenty to do in the wake of this one.
As happens, enterprise was there to make a buck fixing things up. Contractors came from all states in all directions. The unemployed suddenly had work. Skills that had been dormant were suddenly needed. This isn’t the Broken Window fallacy; it is just a reality that new kinds of work needs to be done and enterprise jumps at the chance. Good for enterprise and good for those who need help repairing the damage.
So get this. The following note appeared in my inbox this morning, from the Chamber of Commerce:
The chamber would also like to remind those of you who have damage to your personal property to ask for proof of a license to do business in Auburn as you are negotiating with contractors and other businesses for cleanup, roof repair and other services. Additionally, we as a chamber encourage you to use your local chamber members first. For your convenience we have provided you with a list of chamber members who could offer their service to you.
What’s the priority? Getting the job done or preserving the cartel of favored businesses? We know where the Chamber stands.
In a recent episode of This Week in Google, Jeff Jarvis, with some support from Leo Laporte, suggested that perhaps, given the incredible importance of the Internet, it should be treated like the highway system, with the government paying companies to build it out, but having state guaranteed access. I enjoy listening to TWIG, and many other programs on the TWIT network, but this idea immediately made me think of an old SNL skit:
Compared to turning the Internet into something like the highway system, the ideas in that clip are absolute genius. Consider what the government routinely does on the highway:
It claims the right to stop and inspect travelers’ cars based on the judgment of the police officer (probable cause)
It levies taxes on machines which use the highways, above and beyond the taxes it already collects on the purchase
It licenses users, charging them for the right to drive, on top of the taxes it already levies on the sales of vehicles and license plates
It mandates insurance, corrupting the insurance industry and incentivizing them to support government policies and donate to political campaigns
It forbids the use of technology to hide the interior of the car (window tinting laws) as well as technology to avoid speeding tickets (bans on radar jammers and detectors)
Turning the Internet into something like the highway system would mean government inspecting Internet traffic, blocking it, or even arresting users for things like copyright violations, setting policies on how traffic is prioritized, banning encryption except for approved encryption which the government can decrypt at will, taxing users for the right to use the Internet, and mandating the purchase of security programs. It is hard to imagine a finer example of a Bad Idea.
In a previous post I pointed out the slippery slope in accepting government-backed licensing of “crucial” professions. The problem with slippery slope arguments is that they tend not to be rhetorically-compelling to those without a sufficiently cynical, I should say realistic, conception of the state. They are simply not convinced that allowing certain “reasonable” policies now will set a precedent that will lead to unreasonable policies down the road. Our worries are discounted as merely hypothetical possibilities. They are quite content to put off discussion of crossing that bridge when we come to it…if we come to it, as they see things. And, in any case, something needs to be done about the current problem now, dammit! The trouble is, by the time we reach that bridge of unreasonableness (wherever it happens to be for our interlocutor), we have already gathered so much momentum from sliding down the slope that it is difficult, if not impossible, to halt, much less reverse, the slide. Along the way, with each new government intervention, people grow increasingly used to turning to government solutions for every little problem — they lose the ability to even imagine the possibility of private, market solutions — and what was once thought unreasonable no longer seems so.
We libertarians have more than merely consequentialist, slippery slope arguments against government policies, of course, but I still think it is useful to point out dangerous precedents, particularly when our worries are not just theoretical as we are already well on our way down the slide. The acceptance of professional licensing of “crucial” professions has over time been expanded into ever more areas, even to the licensing of florists in my home state of Louisiana and now to calls for the licensing of parents.