The Half-Life of Policy Rationales

How New Technology Affects Old Policy Issues

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Another recommendation from Adam Thierer's bookshelf collection of the works having "the greatest influence on my thinking about technological innovation / progress." It's a publication from Cato, a collection of articles on a common theme: do the old, well-known arguments for governmental provision/heavy regulation of (some) goods and services still apply in the modern age (if they ever did)? As you might expect, from Cato, the answer is "mostly not". We might not have our flying cars, but we do have a vast array of innovative tools at hand that our forefathers lacked.

The articles are mostly written for a policy-wonk audience, somewhat advanced at times for a dilettante like me. I may have skimmed over, for example, the section discussing the use of anaerobic digestion in dealing with water impurities. But overall, there are a lot of observations and ideas here.

One downside: the book is twenty years old. A generation of technology had yet to be developed, and it shows in some of the discussions.

One chapter deals with the classic public-good example: lighthouses. As it turns out, lighthouses were never the pure public good their publicity implied. Tolls were often successfully collected by their non-government owners. Yet the general provision of navigational aids for watercraft (and aircraft, for that matter) is still mostly a government-owned and operated service. Does it have to be? No.

Other public-good-related chapters discuss fishery management, protection of the "airshed", handling of automotive traffic, and urban parking.

There's the "government must regulate X" argument; that's examined in chapters discussing free banking, medical licensing, and general "consumer protection" agencies. The article on banking really shows its age, since it was written pre-bitcoin. And (by the way) the case for medical licensing was never very good. It was criticized harshly back in 1962 in Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom.

There's also the "natural monopoly" argument. This is examined, and found wanting, in three areas: electricity generation and distribution, provision of water to homes and businesses, and (everyone's favorite) the United States Postal Service.

And a couple chapters deal with other topics: protecting endangered species and an (oddball but interesting) argument for providing housing development as leased land, instead of ownership. (The lessee is more like a shopowner in a mall than a feudal lord.)

All in all, interesting, but I'd maybe recommend perusing more recent back issues of Reason or the Cato website for more recent developments.

Last Modified 2024-01-11 3:00 PM EDT