The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article on low-flow shower heads and all the cool ways that faucet makers are trying to make less water feel like more water (turbines, anyone?). The federal government first set rules on shower head throughput in 1992, due to various water shortages throughout the country. Of course, many people like their high-pressure showers, so these rules are not necessarily popular. Or, as Ft. Worth cardiologist Michael Vaughan put it, those who would limit water flow are “just more of the self-appointed police that are going to tell you what’s the right way to live.”
I’m afraid I have to disagree with Dr. Vaughn. If there are water shortages, then rules on water usage are not telling you how to live, but rather classic government intervention to make society work. Maybe Dr. Vaughn didn’t study the tragedy of the commons in medical school, but if he did he would know that sometimes a larger party needs to set rules to ensure that even rational-acting individuals don’t utterly deplete a common resource. And Ft. Worth is definitely a place that needs to be careful about water. The local water district notes that “drought conditions are a part of life here in North Texas” and a southwestern farm magazine says:
“The Texas Water Development Board reports that by 2050 the state’s population will double from its current 22 million. Even with fairly strict conservation efforts, demand for water will increase by 20 percent to 25 percent. But water supply likely will decrease by 17 percent.”
More broadly speaking, in this year of tea parties it seems like there are folks who want to call every form of government regulation a case of “the self-appointed police that are going to tell you what’s the right way to live.” But in fact, government regulation is an inherent part of living in society. Part of the social contract we all enter is that government will limit our ability to do things that harm society. Rousseau said that in the 1700’s, and it hasn’t changed. Even J.S. Mill, the father of liberty, said that you are not free to do things that harm other people. Using the last drop of water qualifies as harming other people.
I don’t claim that all government regulation is warranted. There are plenty of examples of overzealous bureaucrats or legislators pushing nanny-state sort of rules. But neither is every government rule an example of overreaching state control into the quotidian details of our daily life. Rules and regulations are part of civilization; in fact, one could argue that civilization is nothing BUT a web of rules and regulations. Part of the democratic process is the citizens using their vote to adjust the level of regulation, but they will never be able to vote away all regulation. Unless you want to retreat into the woods like Jeremiah Johnson, you’re going to face some government regulation.
As for Dr. Vaughn, I don’t hear him complaining about the government that built the pipes and pumps and keeps them going to send clean water to his faucet. He only wants to complain when government limits the water that IT PROVIDES. I would be willing to bet that he views himself as some sort of Howard Roark of medicine, a rugged individualist who makes big money because of his vast knowledge, ignoring that much of his income is from prescribing drugs that were likely developed with NIH funding. And as long as I’m piling on Dr. Vaughn, I should note that the government is not “the self-appointed police.” The government is the actual police, empowered by the people to act.