Why Government Is The Problem

Milton Friedman (1912-2006) was a Chicago School economist who criticized Keynesian Economic Theory on the grounds that it was the perfect vehicle for politicians to justify intervention in the economy, as well as just about everything else.

Friedman favored less government tinkering with the economy and preferred what Frederic Hayek called spontaneous order that would develop by leaving people alone to make their own decisions in most economic matters, and according to their own conception of what is in their best interest.

Friedman advocated low taxes and less regulation of the economy by government because he believed that even when acting out of good intentions to fix some perceived problem, the government would more often simply make things worse.

At the University of Chicago Friedman was a mentor to Thomas Sowell, Gary Becker, Robert Fogel and Robert Lucas, Jr. These all went on to become leading economists. Robert Fogel broke ground with a new theory on the profitability of Southern slavery, arguing that it was an extremely profitable institution, contrary to the prior theories of U.B. Philips that slavery was economically moribund at the outbreak of the Civil War and would in time have died of its own weight.

Fogel proved Philips to be completely wrong. With the discipline of economic history and econometrics applied to actual data Fogel established that slavery was highly profitable to the slave holder, especially after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This all explains why the South was willing to fight a bloodly war in an attempt to save its “peculiar institution,” as historian Kenneth Stamp called it.

The stellar career of Thomas Sowell is so well known as to require no comment. That of Gary Becker and  Robert Lucas, Jr. may be less well known but no less accomplished. Can there be a greater honor than to have mentored so many proteges who went on to stellar accomplishments?

What I want to discuss here is Milton Friedman’s great essay, Why Government is the Problem

Is there is any function of government that all but the most extreme anarchist libertarians will agree is appropriate, it is to protect individuals in society from being coerced by other individuals, to keep you from being hit over the head by a random or nonrandom stranger. Is there anybody who will say we are performing that function well? Far from it. Why not?

In part because there are so many laws to break; and the more laws there are to break, the harder it is to prevent them from being broken, not only because law enforcement means are inadequate but, even more, because a larger and larger fraction of the laws fail to command the allegiance of the people.

You can rigidly enforce only those laws that most people believe to be good laws, that is, laws that proscribe actions that they would avoid even in the absence of laws. When laws render illegal actions that many or most people regard as moral and proper, they can be enforced only by brute force. Speed laws are an obvious example; alcohol prohibition, a more dramatic one. [Emphasis Added]

We all know that speed limits are not based on keeping people safe so much as affording opportunities for government to levy a tax on speeds in excess of the posted limit. It even looks like a tax in that the amount one must pay depends upon how much speed one desires to go over the posted limit.  It’s not that different from a sales tax that is based on a percentage of one purchase of goods.

I agree that at some point excess speed becomes unsafe. I’m focusing on the general flow of traffic that is faster, sometimes a lot faster, than the posted limit. This is sometimes called the 85th percentile, or the speed at which 85% of the traffic is moving. Staying in that flow is the safest place to be, it the drivers either slower or faster that can make it no longer safe.

Under posted speed limits cause all sorts of problems and the government is responsible for every one of them. Turning local police officers into armed tax collectors is one. Creating widespread disrespect for laws in general by creating incentives for widespread disregard for speed limits is another. A situation where some drivers are way under or way over the flow of traffic makes the a particular roadway less safe.

Even worse is the problem created by the current regime of DUI laws in America.

DUI laws are heavily enforced but it is questionable as to how much good they do. They generate so much money for government it’s easy for government to want to keep things they way they are even if it’s not effective in getting the real drunks off the road.

Most people believe laws against drunk driving are good laws. The emphasis is on “drunk.” Arresting people for driving over the legal limit is only popular, or even sensible, if the legal limit bears a rational connection to actual drunk driving.

Whether most people think about it or not, many if not most drunk driving arrests and convictions are for driving that is not actually “drunk” driving. The legal limit (.08 in most states, .05 in Utah and a lesser offense of driving while ability impaired in Colorado) is not a scientifically established BAC that makes everyone who reaches that limit actually impaired enough to be dangerous to others. It’s a number established solely by politics and political power.

While everyone arrested and convicted of drunk driving will have a BAC of at least .08 (except Utah and Colorado), only a small fraction of those will have a BAC higher than .12. It’s that small fraction that would be the subject of DUI enforcement in a sensible world.

One way to determine what the BAC should be in order to penalize only those who pose a danger to others, is to collect data on actual crashes caused by impaired drivers.

That was more or less universally done when drunk driving laws were first proposed several decades ago. It was found that a .15 BAC seemed to be the point where one is too impaired to drive safely. Almost all crashes caused by alcohol excess were (and still are) the result of driving with a BAC of .15 or above. I am old enough to remember when a BAC of .15 was the law in Colorado and Wyoming.

I suggest a comparison of the drunk driving problem then and now. It is worse now, I believe we’d find. What could explain that? The law of physics gives an answer.

Time spent on one thing cannot be spent on another thing unless resources are unlimited. Time spent arresting and convicting social drinkers who will harm no one if allowed to go on their way means less time spent interdicting recidivist drunks who are the real problem.

This will never change because MADD is the most powerful lobbying institution in America and would never allow it.

So our law enforcement agencies will go on spinning wheels and wasting time instead of getting drunks off the road. Even if MADD did not exist nothing would change because the present DUI system in America brings in loads of money to police departments, courts, insurance companies, alcohol inter-lock makers, breathalyzer companies, DUI lawyers, and the thousands of people who work in those industries.

The DUI tax has become so important to those who profit from it, they even been created a DUI exception to the U.S. Constitution. There is no need to abolish the Constitution to keep the roads safe from drunks.

The present system might be improved someday if enough people come to realize what is wrong with it.

Meanwhile, the recidivist drunks with up to ten DUI convictions under their belt (notwithstanding very strict laws and penalties that kick in after the 3rd or 4th DUI) are still out there threatening the safety of everyone else on the road.

I am a motorist, so this affects me. Perhaps, more than some others because I am also a motorcyclist, a bicyclist, and a frequent pedestrian. I’m sort of a road warrior.

I need to add a disclaimer lest someone think I have a personal axe to grind. I don’t.

I have an excellent driving record and have never been stopped or arrested for suspicion of DUI. In fact, I do not partake of alcohol in any form except for the occasional glass of a fine wine with good food at home when I know I’m not going out. I operate all of my vehicles only with a zero alcohol content. Therefore I never will be personally affected by DUI laws, except to the extent the current regime is making the roads more dangerous than they need be. That’s what Friedman meant when he said government is the problem. It tries to fix things and instead makes them worse.

Friedman gives the government credit for good intentions. I think many government actions are taken to advance an agenda that falls outside of good intentions, and is for the benefit of the few and not the many.  Public Choice theory holds it so.

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