In one of those old cartoons that — for better or for worse — taught moral lessons to a couple of generations of Americans, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck come across a Middle Eastern cave filled with treasure. Searching every corner to make sure that he hasn’t missed a penny, Daffy comes across a magic lamp, and its jinni does what jinnis do and offers him wishes.
But Daffy fears that the jinni is really after his gold, so he stuffs him back into the lamp… temporarily, before the jinni shoots back out and declares that there will be consequences. The duck dismisses the threat, saying, “Consequences, schmonsequences, as long as I’m rich.”
The cartoon ends with Bugs’ finding a pearl in a seaside oyster and a miniaturized Daffy appearing to claim it. “Mine! Mine! I’m a happy miser.”
The first is by Roger Kimball. I saw Mr. Kimball speak some years back, at the Portsmouth Institute’s inaugural conference, on William F. Buckley. Kimball told of sailing with WFB… and then buying the boat from him. That is to say that, in externalities, he fits the image of the conservative aristocrat.
That did not protect him from Hurricane Sandy, and it is not protecting him from the zoning zealots of Connecticut. Roger (dear fellow) was not aware that he needed a government permit to tear out and replace internal building materials that had spent some time under salt water. His discovery sent him into the realm of surreal regulation:
Before you could get a building permit, however, you had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. And Zoning—citing FEMA regulations—would force you to bring the house “up to code,” which in many cases meant elevating the house by several feet. Now, elevating your house is very expensive and time consuming—not because of the actual raising, which takes just a day or two, but because of the required permits.
Kafka would have liked the zoning folks. There also is a limit on how high in the sky your house can be. That calculation seems to be a state secret, but it can easily happen that raising your house violates the height requirement. Which means that you can’t raise the house that you must raise if you want to repair it. Got that?
The schmonsequences of this actuality include, among others, that thousands of dollars that otherwise might have been spent much more productively in our nation’s struggling economy are going to temporary housing and government fees, as well as payments to people to help the family navigate the artificially imposed rules of building.
(By artificial, I mean the rules exist independently of natural things like the laws of physics and the properties of lumber.)
In his essay, Thomas Sowell argues that this difficulty is more than just a gnat nagging at the one-percent:
San Francisco is a classic example of a city unexcelled in its liberalism. But the black population of San Francisco today is less than half of what it was back in 1970, even though the city’s total population has grown.
Severe restrictions on building housing in San Francisco have driven rents and home prices so high that blacks and other people with low or moderate incomes have been driven out of the city.
Government interference, in other words, lays like a restrictive film across the economy and the society. The result is not some minor inconveniences to people who can afford to deal with them. It is a broad inability of people to advance their situation, and to do the sorts of things that help others to advance theirs. Even the minor aspect of wealthy Kimballs’ renting living space helps inflate the cost of rentals throughout his region, during a time when homes have been destroyed.
Sowell’s topic is much broader, though. In his view, the principle applies in non-economic ways, as well. Affirmative action, for instance, forces a mismatch of candidates with positions, leading to outcomes that aren’t ideal for either. And as for social matters:
The black family survived centuries of slavery and generations of Jim Crow, but it has disintegrated in the wake of the liberals’ expansion of the welfare state. Most black children grew up in homes with two parents during all that time but most grow up with only one parent today.
Statism, like Daffy Duck, only has eyes for the treasure — in its case, the authority to decree that things must be as its adherents believe they should be. Houses must be so many feet above the ground and only so high. Student bodies should consist of so many proportions of each demographic group. “The rich” should (via costly government services) ensure that the natural consequences of personal decisions and misfortune do not threaten such hardship as to affect behavior.
The jinni of human nature will not return to the bottle, though, and scant thought is given to possible outcomes. Moreover, limited safeguards are in place to allow a course correction once bureaucracies have been born. What we get, therefore, is a small-in-the-sense-of-petty government structure that is more concerned with preserving its rules than with allowing the human beings whom it is supposed to serve to thrive.