Monday, October 31, 2016

The rise and rise of control-freak government

(This is a slightly extended version of a column first published in The Dominion Post, October 28.)

The ancient Greeks left us several words describing various forms of government: democracy, autocracy and oligarchy, to give just three examples.

But there was one omission, probably because it describes a type of administration that the Greeks never envisaged. For want of a better term, I’ll call it control-freak government.

This is a form of government in which policy-makers, politicians and bureaucrats constantly devise new ways of controlling our behaviour on the pretext that they have to protect us from our own foolishness. Perhaps we could call it a bullyocracy.

Control-freak government is based on the supposition that we’re all basically incapable of making our own responsible decisions. We need paternalistic minders and a suffocating regulatory regime to stop us from getting into trouble.

This busybody culture pervades our lives slowly and insidiously, eventually reaching the point where we become so accustomed to it that we assume it’s the natural order of things and accept restrictions on what we can do without a murmur of complaint.

In the meantime it restricts individual autonomy, erodes personal responsibility and piles needless extra costs on society.

One tiny example: Small-scale cheesemaker Biddy Fraser-Davies recently protested that at least half the $40,000 annual income from her four jersey cows gets swallowed up by government fees.

Fraser-Davies, who farms near Eketahuna, has been hounded for years by food safety officers from the Ministry for Primary Industries. This, incidentally, is the same government department that turns a blind eye to the large-scale, illegal dumping of fish.

Elderly women (Fraser-Davies is 74) are clearly a much more tempting target than big, hairy fishing companies . She says she was recently billed $10,000 for testing 10 of her cheeses and calculates the cost comes to $240 per kilo.

On radio recently, she recalled that after she featured on Country Calendar in 2009, the Food Safety Authority pounced within minutes because it had no record of her having filed a risk management plan. I suppose we should be impressed by the authority’s 24/7 vigilance (it was a Saturday night, after all), but this suggests an almost obsessive level of control-freakery. 

To my knowledge no one ever fell sick or died from eating Fraser-Davies’ cheeses, unless she’s buried the bodies somewhere on her farm.  Perhaps the MPI should send some men to start digging the place up.

To her credit, she refuses to be cowed by the public-sector commissars. This sets her apart from most timid New Zealand business owners, who keep their heads down and meekly comply. Presumably, getting offside with the enforcers is more trouble than it’s worth. 

The MPI justifies its cheese-testing regime because there’s a theoretical risk of harmful pathogens. Eliminating risk can be used to justify all manner of bureaucratic meddling. It’s all part of the grand mission to create a perfect world where Nanny State keeps us all safe.

A priceless example was the edict that went out years ago forbidding brass bands from playing on the backs of trucks. I must have missed the news reports about hapless tuba players toppling from truck decks and being crushed under the wheels while playing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in Christmas parades.

Perhaps I also missed hearing the anguished cries of builders and roofers plummeting from house rooftops. There must have been an epidemic of such deaths to justify the requirement that safety scaffolding now be erected around the roofs of houses under construction.

I'm told even chimney sweepers are now saying they can’t work without protective scaffolding, which can bump up the cost of the job from $200 to $1000.

It goes without saying there’s an element of risk in many undertakings. The crucial consideration should surely be whether the action taken to minimise risk is proportionate – or, to put it another way, whether the cost of trying to eliminate risk far outweighs any possible benefit.

Compulsory scaffolding around rooftops may have averted a few broken limbs, but at what cost to house owners and home buyers?

The police, too, have been captured by a control-freak mentality. Just look at their heavy-handed enforcement of liquor controls.

Wellington Police have an “alcohol harm reduction officer” (how Big Brother is that?) who gives the impression of being on a moral crusade. And while police numbers are stretched and burglars are able to strike with apparent impunity, there always seem to be enough officers to operate drink-drive checkpoints in the hope of nabbing some harmless mug who’s unwittingly had one glass of sauvignon blanc too many.

It’s another case of low-hanging fruit. Burglars are hard to catch; women on the way home from bowls, not so much.

Speaking of which, I wrote a column in this space roughly a year ago criticising the lower drink-drive limits introduced in 2014, which I predicted would catch out responsible, otherwise law-abiding people while hard-core recidivist drunk drivers would continue to behave as they always had.

I also said I would quite likely get pinged myself, since the new limits had made it much harder to judge when you were at risk of breaking the law.

My column attracted a pompous response from an overpaid poo-bah in the New Zealand Transport Agency. He wrote that there was no such thing as safe drink-driving, thus confirming what I’d suspected: that the objective of the law change was to deter us from drinking altogether.

But here’s the thing: road deaths have increased since drink-drive limits were lowered, from 293 in 2014 to 319 in 2015 and 263 so far this year compared with 253 at this time last year.

It’s a crude measure, admittedly, but it reminds us of what the economist Milton Friedman said about the folly of judging things by their intentions rather than their results.

Of course a few more country pubs have gone out of business in the meantime, because the people who previously socialised in them are terrified of having one too many and getting caught.

But why should the city-dwelling bureaucrats worry?  They never drank in them anyway. And if they go one over the limit at a fashionable Thorndon cafĂ©, they can just call a cab. Theirs is a different world from the one inhabited by the people whose lives they seek to control.


granddad said...

I'm (re)reading "The Servile Mind" by Kenneth Minogue, a book I'm sure you will find very interesting (if you haven't already read it).

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Karl,

And I'm reading:

The Demon in Democracy : Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies -

Where the author, who grew up in Soviet occupied Poland and since moved to the west compares 'liberal democracy' with Communism. It's uncomfortable but insightful reading.