Local Columnists

July 30, 2014

Dave Helling: When a cracked skull is the price we pay for freedom

Libertarianism can seem highly appealing on paper, but it’s easy to criticize government regulation in a world where food and medical safety, travel and other endeavors are overseen by someone.

Over the next two years, America’s long-suffering libertarian movement may finally get its moment in the political sunshine.

Most often promoted by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — and echoed by many would-be GOP presidential candidates — the minimalist doctrine has a certain appeal. Who wouldn’t like less government in their lives?

Yet the logic of libertarianism is only clear as an abstraction. In the real world, we can contemplate ending government regulation largely because we live in a government-regulated world.

Last Sunday, for example, The New York Times wrote about the recent ferry disaster in South Korea. Hundreds of children died because the ferry was dangerously overloaded at its top — but underfilled below the waterline, a recipe for catastrophe. It capsized.

“The ferry company was able to cut corners so dangerously,” the newspaper said, “because South Korea’s system for regulating ferries — like so much of regulation in South Korea — is based on trust, riddled with loopholes, manpower shortages, petty corruption and a reliance on businesses to police themselves.”

In short, South Korea’s regulatory approach is quasi-libertarian, based in part on trust and corporate self-regulation.

That works fine until the boat tips over.

It’s easy to curse government oversight while eating food already inspected for safety, or taking medicine tested for effectiveness and toxicity.

Perhaps you hate the hard hat the Occupational Safety and Health Administration makes you wear.

Perhaps that view changes after a colleague escapes injury when an errant brick conks her on the noggin.

We can argue over the scope of government regulation and its effectiveness. It does seem absurd that bureaucrats license hair weavers, or that the Environmental Protection Agency wants to keep an eye on ditch water. Even with often imperfect government oversight, bad things happen.

But it isn’t always clear if libertarians see a difference between bad and good oversight.

On Tuesday, a Texas Tech professor wrote this for Cato, a well-respected libertarian think tank: “Passing (U.S.) trade sanctions or other laws that take away the option of (foreign) children working in sweatshops only limits their options further and throws them into worse alternatives.”

Americans once lived in a world where kids worked in factories without fire escapes and bad meat routinely made it to the table. As libertarians reach the sunshine, they’ll need to explain how they’ll avoid slipping back into darkness.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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