2011-09-20

Land of the What?

CBC reports that Canada has finally surpassed the United States of America on the Economic Freedom Index. While this isn't the big, famous Economic Freedom Index we all know and love, it is certainly a bad omen on the economic freedom front.

What is perhaps most interesting is that Canada is ranked ahead of the USA not because of an increase in economic freedom, but because it has experienced a slower rate of decline. In other words, both Canada and the USA have lower economic freedom scores this year, but Canada's is less bad than America's.

The governments of the world are bloating outwards like gluttonous blobs, swallowing all of our liberty in fat, self-important gulps.

How Does Such a Thing Occur?
It is tempting for some freedom-loving people to imagine an evil, nasty blob like "Parallax" from Green Lantern, laughing at the futility of mere mortal existence, and swallowing everything it touches in a dark cloud of destruction...



But those of us a bit more familiar with government bureaucracies know this is not the case. No, the truth is far more underwhelming than that. If freedom's greatest enemy were a force so almighty and sinister, then there would be far too much nobility attached to protecting freedom. We would never let it go.

Instead, governments steal our freedoms by assumption, or more precisely by a series of assumptions that ordinary people take for granted, and never question.

Overcoming the rapid decline of our freedom, therefore, is a simple task of questioning the underlying assumptions that steal our liberty away.

Assumption Number One: A Problem Exists
The very first assumption by which we are confronted is the assumption that there exists some underlying problem with the way society behaves, and that this problem desperately needs to be corrected by people who know better. This is the most difficult assumption to overcome, because people will often get very angry with you if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of such a problem.

Let us take for example a common bylaw in the Northeastern regions of North America: a ban on roadside advertising billboards. Those of us who live in a world full of billboards would never even consider banning them - not because we like them, but simply because the idea that they are a problem has never even occurred to us. Granted, ceteris paribus, we would all rather see beautiful scenery than brightly colored billboards.

The assumption, therefore, starts at this random imaginary choice: Would you rather look at a beautiful horizon, or a billboard advertisement? This question would never occur to you unless someone deliberately asked you. That's not because you love billboards, but rather because the question itself is entirely objectionable. Who on Earth is ever confronted with a choice between the horizon and a billboard? Nobody. When we want to view the horizon, we do so. When we want to view advertisements, we do so. There is no choice. There is no trade-off. There is no problem.

The whole "problem" is made up.

Assumption Number Two: The Proposed Solution Actually Solves the Problem
The way this one works is like so: If you don't agree with my ban on billboards, then you're some kind of corporate tool who wants to get rich at the expense of the middle class, or some unenlightened conservative idjut who buys everything he hears on Fox News.

The reason you can't argue with the accusation is because the accusation is merely a rhetorical tool that forces you to accept a false position of opposition. The debate becomes an argument about whether billboards are an issue of corporate governance versus natural aesthetics. The issue becomes convoluted before you even have a chance to process the key features of the issue.If, by happenstance, you are a conservative or libertarian person, you may even start defending the interests of advertisers!

But you never have the chance to question the highly questionable assumption that banning billboards solves the problem expressed in Assumption Number One. If there is some kind of trade-off between viewing billboards and viewing the horizon (which there never was in the first place!), does banning billboards solve the problem?

Well, it certainly eliminates billboards... But was the problem billboards, or was the problem billboard placement? Was the problem billboards, or was the problem billboard size? If all billboards are banished, will advertisers turn their efforts on TV and radio advertisements, and is the resulting increase in those sorts of advertisements better or worse than viewing the horizon in a more billboard-free world?

More importantly, how will you now choose to educate yourself about the available goods and services in your area now that you cannot see any billboards?

What how does the billboard-banning policy address these issues? Simply, it doesn't. It never intended to. The whole problem was made up in the first place. How could we expect a solution to a made-up problem to ever fully compensate for the change in consumer landscape that results in the new policy?

Assumption Number Three: The Research Behind the Policy is Credible
I hate to burst your bubble, but government research is conducted by interns with bachelor's degrees in political science whose first exposure to the issue is the fact that they have been tasked to research it. They do an internet scan for articles on the topic, they compile a series of notable quotes and citations, they write an executive summary, and they pass it on.

The document they produce becomes the foundation for a policy that lasts over one hundred years. The only time these documents are ever "questioned" is when some competing bureaucrat wants to replace Billboard Ban X with Billboard Ban Y. Assumptions Number One and Number Two are never questioned, ever. Assumption Number Three is made to look appropriate for the time at which it was made. It is subsequently replaced by Assumption Number Three-Dot-One, but the ban persists.

Who are these people and what do they know about horizons or billboards? Or consumers and advertising? They are no one, and they know nothing. They are your cousin, Tuck, who did his Master's Thesis on feminism in Latvia. That's all there is to it.

Assumption Number Four: Bureaucrats Are Experts
You might love your cousin Tuck, and Tuck probably loves you, too. But in his capacity as a bureaucrat, all Tuck knows is that someone asked him to do some research, and he did it. He did the best he could. If he keeps doing a good job, one day he will be the person who asks for the research to be done: He will be Tuck's Manager.

Tuck's Manager oversees a government program tasked to regulate the four feet on either side of any state road. Tuck's Manager also wants to do a good job, and that good job consists entirely of ensuring that she knows what's happening on the four-foot strip at either side of any road.

How do issues come up? Innocent people who own a roadside farm decide they want to put up a billboard and rent it out. They become aware of the agency run by Tuck's Manager, and they send an email or place a phone call, or have their lawyers do it. In their email, they declare their intent to erect a billboard and ask what the licensing requirement is.

Tuck's Manager asks Tuck to find out. Tuck finds out that there is no licensing requirement. Tuck's Manager raises the issue at the next inter-departmental meeting, saying something to the effect of, "One of our constituents wants to erect a billboard. Now, if someone wants to erect a billboard, there currently is no licensing process in place for them to be able to do that, and so we would like approval to put together a fact-finding team to investigate the feasibility of implementing a licensing structure..."

As you can see, Tuck's Manager wants to help. In helping, Tuck's Manager succeeds only in taking the previous condition, which was liberty, and turning into a convoluted regulatory trap.

Thus, virtually all government growth and bureaucratic hells are created by the relatively innocent intentions of people who think that a formalized process is preferential to perfect liberty.

Assumption Number Five: The Government Agrees With Itself
What happens next is nothing more than the competing interest of agencies. At some point, during a future inter-departmental meeting, the manager of the Agency That Deals With Fields realizes that the billboard licensing process encroaches on his territory. So he now launches a fact-finding team, which asks some research of Johan; Johan discovers that birds occasionally smack into billboards at dusk, and the Bird Protectorate Agency doesn't much like what billboards to for birds.

So the Bird Protectorate Agency asks Simon to do some research and Simon discovers that 6 motorists out of 11 prefer looking at birds on the horizon to birds sitting on top of billboards. A stakeholder solicitation occurs and the findings reveal that the birds are beside the point; people prefer horizons to billboards.

The Bird Protectorate Agency coordinates with some other agencies to launch a regional campaign to eliminate the licensing of future billboards. By now, Tuck's Manager is running for mayor, promising to end the scourge of billboards forever.

Stop the Madness
Anything can become a complex issue if it changes hands enough times. The way to combat the perpetual loss of our liberties is to refuse to allow such nonsense to take any forward steps. Kill the inertia. There is no problem. Billboards are fine. Health care is expensive, but we all buy it. There is no problem, we just have preferences. We always prefer fun to work, so any issue that is presented as a choice between fun and work is a no-brainer.

But such issues don't really exist.