The Government Does Not Want to Run Your Life

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.

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3 responses to “The Government Does Not Want to Run Your Life

  1. I love my green shower head. In fact, it’s a wonderful improvement over the old one we had.

    Having been a “gentleman farmer” back in the day and farmed in a drought, I never gripe about a rainy day. I learned to employ some simple water harvesting techniques to have fresh, soft water on hand for the livestock, the market garden, even for the laundry. That old time farming techniques to capture and make efficient use of water are getting attention in urban areas today is a great thing.

    If government actually helps this no-brainer transformation to better water capturing and storage techniques come into being at a time when millions of people live in places like Los Angeles where plenty of water can be had by these methods (rain water harvesting, cisterns, capturing that water before it runs off into the ocean), well so much the better. What is possibly wrong with government actually seeing what needs to be done and playing a role in making that happen? I just don’t get the complaints.

  2. I wish I’d said some of that. I’ve stabbed at it in a number of maddening dialogues with chortling, self-satisfied libertarians.

    The only time I ever remember scoring a point involved a discussion of corporate environmental impact, when I pointed out the inevitable fairness of fining anyone who made a mess that their neighbors had to either clean up or, bluntly, eat shit.

  3. Currently in California the state is about to introduce regulations for the power consumption of HD TV sets — effective in about a year or so and then getting more stringent in another couple of years. About 1/4 of all models currently on the market in the Golden State meet the proposed energy requirements and there is already the same sort of whining and moaning.

    http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/03/california-tv/

    If 25% of current models already meet proposed standards, it means the technology is already around and in production. Manufacturers will have to either upgrade or discontinue some models, but how long does an electronic device remain “as is” anyway? As the article I’ve offered a link to says, power hogging TV’s are fading from the scene at this point anyway. What this regulation is likely to do is insure that lower energy consumption continues to be important even for future products.

    Why the crying? These kinds of regs actually help the free market by forcing obsolete technology (two to three years is about it for tech gear) out of the mix, thereby encouraging innovation and improvements. What is so onerous about regulations that actually encourage a trend to serve an obvious need (and consumer want) in the market place?

    Seriously, as much as I like sundials, I do have a couple of those fancy, schmantzy watches and clocks around the house for use on cloudy days. Modern technology should win out and energy efficiency is a part of what is needed in the future.

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