When Regulations Attack . . . and Small Government Advocates Are Responsible

I understand that certain regulations are necessary to prevent fraud, or to ensure that a certain class of individuals aren’t made eligible for a certain class of benefits. But I am with Will Baude and Jacob Levy, who criticize the fact that in the latest farm bill, small-government advocates (Republicans, specifically) have helped ensure the existence of a larger government with more intrusive regulations in order to enforce zero tolerance policies that cost more to implement than they will ever bring about in savings. Quoth Levy:

And so poor people will be subjected to another set of forms, another set of inspections, another set of surveillance and monitoring, another set of insults, another risk of false findings of guilt, for trivial financial savings. Someone gets to posture as having zero tolerance for some unacceptable outcome; that’s what the zero tolerance policies are for. And life for a sixth of the country’s population gets worse, more unfree, more subject to the burdens and intrusions of micromanaging regulation.

My endorsement of Baude’s and Levy’s point is not meant to justify or advocate for fraud. It is meant to say, however, that the regulations we have or need to have should be smarter and should work towards some kind of tangible, valuable policy benefit. Instead, many regulations are meant to implement and bring about zero-tolerance outcomes, which as Levy rightly notes

are a plague on the American political and legal climate right now. The effort to make sure that no American child ever brings a narcotic or firearm to school is doomed to fail to begin with, and also results in stupid expulsions of children carrying aspirin or squirt guns. What we have here isn’t a new substantive rule (big-money lottery winners are already income-inelgiible [sic] for SNAP) but a zero-tolerance mindset applied to the existing rule, an effort to move from trivially-few to zero offenses; and innocent people will get caught in the net. (Something everyone could stand to remember: the lower frequency an offense is, the worse the ratio is likely to be between the false negatives you’re trying to prevent and the false positives you’re going to create.)

And yes, like Levy (and I presume Baude as well), I think that this sorry state of affairs helps buttress the great and good Milton Friedman’s argument that there ought to be a negative income tax in place of the current welfare system. As it costs an inordinate amount of time and money to make sure that rules are being complied with, I think it would be best to give people dependent on the welfare system money, and let them decide how best to spend that money. Isn’t that what small-government advocates argue for in other instances (e.g., school choice)? I know that I’ve certainly argued for more local/personal control when it comes to such policy issues, and I see no reason to do otherwise in the context of welfare policy.