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In Washington, Every Day is Groundhog Day

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“We all knew it was true, but it needs to be said: A groundhog is just a groundhog.”

So began a recent news story about Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most famous rodent outside of Disney World. We can be sure some poor intern examined 30 years of temperature data to correlate with Phil’s Groundhog Day prediction. And contributing to this animal peer review process is Bee Cave Bob, a Texas armadillo that predicts not just local weather patterns but also the future political climate. Only in Texas.

All of this can be silly, but these critters do tell us something, and it’s not the weather. We Americans have a thing about getting the future “right.” We love rolling the dice attempting to benefit from our predictions. Americans spend more on gambling than on other leisure activities, like seeing movies, purchasing music, and visiting theme parks. We even promote shows where puppies and kittens “predict” Super Bowl winners.

It’s all harmless fun (a few problem gamblers aside). But when government sets out to create laws and regulations based on what it expects or hopes or predicts the future should or would be, we citizens often pay a steep price.

Government does this all the time. It hinders production of affordable energy in the hope of preventing future climate change. It limits access to experimental drugs because of the possibility of dangerous side effects. It restricts access to capital for industries it deems to pose risk of fraud. It prevents use of certain chemicals that could be harmful at levels not seen in common use.

This is all well-intentioned fear mongering run amok. And it’s not even consistent.

There is a certain hypocrisy among progressives when the “science,” which they often cite to justify interventionist policies, doesn’t fit with their parochial interests.

Consider the ongoing debate over child vaccinations, a long-simmering issue that has now surfaced with a vengeance due to an outbreak of measles.CNN reports that many parents opt out because they are more likely to “have vaccine safety concerns and to ‘perceive fewer benefits associated with vaccines,’ despite the scientific evidence and debunking of a study that suggested vaccines could trigger autism.” Yet, these parents are among the wealthiest and most educated Americans. And liberal.

Marin County, California, epitomizes this dichotomy. Among the richest and most progressively liberal counties in the United States, it has the most restrictive local environmental and development laws on the books. Smoke a cigarette, eat a non-free range chicken, or suggest cutting a tree down in the middle of Mill Valley and you will be denounced as a philistine and banned from ever crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. But then insist that children should get vaccinated, and Marin County denizens’ paternalistic penchant for “scientific facts” dissipates with the early morning fog.

It’s not just affluent liberals who take this precautionary to nonsensical lengths. The Fraternal Order of Police and national sheriff’s organizations are pressuring Google to change its Waze traffic software app that warns drivers when police are nearby, because it will supposedly create “police stalkers.” As one officer states, “if you’re a criminal and you want to rob a bank, hypothetically, you use your Waze.” And I thought they needed a gun and mask, but clearly the smartphone is the issue. I wonder if it’s got more to do with reduced revenues for cities and police departments?

“The curious task of economics,” noted F.A. Hayek, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Yet, trying to design a risk-free world occupies much of our lawmakers’ time. And, like that anti-Waze lobbying campaign, it’s based on actions that haven’t even occurred.

As I have said before, politicians lack the patience, and often the understanding, that sees wisdom in the humility of acknowledging the unknown. Instead of weighing the tradeoffs between perceived harms and benefits of a given policy, they succumb to the tyranny of the urgent. This grossly subjective approach to risk management has led to policies that waste our labors in the name of eliminating uncertainty.

Except, perhaps for death and taxes—and groundhogs and armadillos.