Cataloging Washington’s Hidden Costs: Part 1: The Loss of Liberty

Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.
—Quote frequently attributed to Galileo that he probably never said.

Washington is teeing up for still another battle over increasing the debt limit in early 2014. It’d actually be a relief if the $17.13 trillion national debt were the end of big government.

Costs of federal regulatory interventions approaching $2 trillion annually can be identified from Office of Management and Budget reviews and paperwork compliance, plus energy, environmental and economic mandates and more.

Unfortunately it’s impossible to catalog all the costs that could be ascribed to compliance with federal requirements.

There are still further unfathomed, unmeasured omissions that may be even more significant than that which we can loosely measure, especially when we ponder the polical, social and cultural costs of intervention.

These untallied costs constitute the great unseen; they go beyond government spending and debt, and the elements of regulation that we can loosely quantify.

Federal “Regulatory Impact Analyses” and regulatory bureaus generally, whether federal or state, aren’t particularly adept at capturing the value of lost liberty and choice.

While these costs don’t get attention or acknowledgment, they are genuine in the eyes of those impacted.

This brief series will describe a few of these hidden costs of big government, starting with simply the loss of liberty in our nanny-state, whose officials want to “nudge” us into behaviors they deem good for us.

Unfortunately those who so readily cheer on the regulatory state–like the Virgina politician who wants to force doctors to accept Medicare and Medicaid patients in the wake of Obamacare, will not fill in the gaps.

Those so fond of big government’s power will not create jobs, or create abundant energy for others out of “renewables.” They will not personally give up coal-fired electricity and gasoline. They do not do that which they demand of others, which is not fair.

The summer 2013 Wall Street Journal “Playing It Safe” installment on our now risk-averse business and entrepreneurial culture is disheartening but unsurprising.

Whatever the issue–the ability to communicate anonymously online, energy standards for residential dishwashers, e-cigarettes that emit water vapor instead of noxious chemicals, the size of beverages, whether or not menus have calorie labels, whether or not to use ethanol, where the opening on one’s washing machine appears–it is not sufficient that others are safe and not harmed by one’s activity.

No, whether the issue is big or small, liberty must yield and authorities must decide. And authority is increasingly asserted without having been granted by Congress or legislatures.

For example, even though knowledge is dispersed on the Internet and parents may know more than the Federal Trade Commission does, parents are not permitted to decide for children since the FTC (naturally without cost estimates) seeks to regulate marketing online to children.

Many argue over the vast loss of liberties brought to bear in the aftermath of the Patriot Act, such as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration’s nudie scanners. To that list we must now add the revelations regarding National Security Agency data sweeps.

We do not measure costs as if paternalism were frowned upon.

We experience mounting unquantified costs with respect to loss of choice and opportunities, and incursions upon individual rights and federalism.

Marlo Lewis noted regarding recent high profile regulatory intervention that “the biggest hidden cost…is the damage to our constitutional system of separated powers and democratic accountability.”

Our metrics simply cannot cope with this kind of cost.

With the rise of the nanny state comes a loss of the right to disagree and go one’s own way, to elect to take risks. Benefits get invoked as if paternalism were a good thing.

A major cost of growing government is the loss of our liberties. Yet, there are other kinds of costs.

Next time: Untabulated Economic Costs and Interference