Walter Williams wrote an editorial confronting a few collectivist economic fallacies that we hear all to often in argument. Here he makes a poignant and slightly amusing remark on bleeding heart government regulations:
How many times have we heard: If it will save just one life, it’s worth it? The “it” could be bike helmet laws, childproof medicine bottles, or formaldehyde and asbestos safety regulations. A good economist cringes hearing such statements because they only consider the benefits of an action while ignoring the cost. Looking at benefits only, just about anything is worth doing because there’s usually a benefit. Let’s look at it.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some 43,443 people were killed on the nation’s highways in 2005. If Congress were to enact a 10 miles per hour national speed limit, we’d save thousands of lives each year. You say, “Williams, that would be stupid and impractical!” My response to you is: But look at all the lives that would be saved. What you really mean by stupid and impractical is that preventing thousands of highway fatalities is not worth the cost and inconvenience that would result from having to poke along at 10 miles per hour. Of course, calling a 10 miles per hour law stupid and impractical is a more socially acceptable way of saying those saved lives aren’t worth it.
The contentions I’d essentially make against regulations and laws of the same spirit are:
1) Government changes the incentives present under the free market–that, you’re on your own and you get what you deserve (i.e. produce)–to “you get whatever the political climate sees fit.”
2) Most importantly: government has no right to tell me what to do with myself and my stuff (which also counts as myself insofar as I earned it and I own it).
Especially when you get into the narrow minded logic of “one life makes it all worth it” you run the risk of infinite waste and fiscal irresponability. As any honest man will acknowlege, you can have only a finite amount of economic resources at any given point in time. The goal of an economic system is to allocate that wealth in the most effecient and logical way. Once you apply the “one life” mentality you will justify plundering any amount of your resources on one problem without regard to what may be the present and future sideffects in other realms of the economy.