A Big Lesson We Shouldn’t Learn the Hard Way


I get the feeling that the world is preparing to teach us a very big lesson, and we’re insisting on learning it the hard way.

In the years before the Soviet Union collapsed, celebrities began slipping through the Iron Curtain for performances.  One product of that pop invasion was Billy Crystal’s “Joke-nost” special in 1989.  In one comedic sketch from the show, Crystal buys his way into a fancy restaurant by slipping the maitre d a roll of toilet paper.  The Soviet system — communism or socialism, as you like — couldn’t allocate resources well enough in a modern world to ensure the production and/or import of simple basics.  We’re seeing the same thing in Venezuela, now.

Those of us who enjoy the huge benefits of the modern world should think about the implications.  With the outbreak of yellow fever in Africa, health experts are worried there will be a shortage of the vaccine.  A nation’s having to find some alternative means of cleaning itself after using the toilet may be funny; a nation’s having to find a way to deal with people who have blood coming out of their eyes, not so much.

The losses of socialism aren’t just things that we know exist and can’t seem to get, of course.  As Glenn Reynolds writes, we can only guess at the cures and innovations that we might currently have were it not for government’s insistence that it should act as a corporate board for all economic and social activity:

I think it’s mostly true that things are stagnating compared to the century, or quarter-century before 1970. Some of that is simply because we’ve snagged the low-hanging fruit: You can only invent radio once. But I think there’s more to it than that.

In the United States, which drove most of the “golden quarter’s” progress, 1970 marks what scholars of administrative law (like me) call the “regulatory explosion.” Although government expanded a lot during the New Deal under FDR, it wasn’t until 1970, under Richard Nixon, that we saw an explosion of new-type regulations that directly burdened people and progress: The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, the founding of Occupation Safety and Health Administration, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, etc. — all things that would have made the most hard-boiled New Dealer blanch.

As Reynolds goes on to point out, this focus of power made people in and near government very wealthy.  Now, they’ve locked in their positions to make the new regime nearly impossible for the people to challenge.

But nature can challenge it, and the biggest thing that the aristocrats will have socialized isn’t production or benefits, but the pain for their folly.  It would be better to learn the lesson through observation and reason.  Unfortunately, from the Rhode Island General Assembly to the 2016 presidential race, we’re probably learning that that isn’t going to happen.

  • Russ

    “Those of us who enjoy the huge benefits of the modern world should think about the implications. With the outbreak of yellow fever in Africa, health experts are worried there will be a shortage of the vaccine.”

    Whatever other truth there is in this post, you couldn’t have picked a worse example than the yellow fever vaccine for making the case against government involvement in producing and allocating goods.

    Unlike toilet paper, which most of us need daily. Vaccines like the yellow fever vaccine are “one and done”. Pharma companies often make more money treating sick individuals with months or years of drugs than they do in preventing disease. Add to that the huge liability risks and you have a recipe for disaster without public spending.

    Of the four major producers of the yellow-fever vaccine, three are government-run facilities. (The fourth is French vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur.) There’s a reason government-run facilities are so prominent in the yellow fever vaccine market. “It is a matter of economics,” says Monath. “It’s an old vaccine…the price is low. There’s just not a big incentive to increase production.”

    • Mike678

      Good point, Russ. Now that you pointed that out that the example provided wasn’t the best, what about the main point of the piece? Which is a better system? Capitalism or socialism?

      • Russ

        That’s the main point? You’ll have to forgive me for missing that.

        It’s always hard to tell what Justin actual means when he writes. I thought he was arguing for repeal of Nixon era environmental and labor laws. Apparently Nixon was some kind of arch liberal that would make FDR blanch.

        • Mike678

          Well, since you seem unable to even understand and answer a direct question, I can understand why you may miss the point of a more nuanced article.