Bryan Caplan  

The Effects of Disability Regs: Perverse, or Just Overpriced?

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Penn and Teller had an interesting episode debunking the Americans With Disabilities Act and related regulations. But even a Non-Bleeding Heart Libertarian like myself spent most of the episode furrowing his brow in puzzlement. Penn and Teller appeared to be arguing that even things like mandatory handicapped parking somehow backfire and wind up hurting the handicapped.

The episode had its moments. Penn and Teller made the perfectly sensible argument that regulations allowing the handicapped to sue employers make it harder for the handicapped to find jobs in the first place. I've made analogous arguments hundreds of time. I'm sold.

But P&T go much further. They don't claim that handicapped parking regs make it harder for the handicapped to park. Instead, they seem to argue that using regulation to make life easier for the handicapped stops them from helping themselves, robbing them of the drive to overcome their disabilities.

I'm open to this argument on a theoretical level. Welfare does lead the poor down a self-destructive path by making life too easy in the short-term. However, in practice, it seems ludicrous to extend this argument to the severely handicapped. No matter how many regulations we have, it's never going to be easy to live in a wheelchair. There will always be adversity to struggle against, no matter how accessible buildings become.

The bottom line: While a sub-set of disability regs (primarily employment-related) probably do have perverse effects, most of these regs do help the handicapped. The main economic argument against them is not that they "hurt the very people they were designed to help," but that the cost is high and the benefits are small. Handicapped parking regulations are good for the handicapped, but they also mean that, wherever you go, the best parking is almost always at least half-empty. Wheelchair accessibility regs require every business to spend a bundle to accomodate a handful of disabled patrons. It's a lot more efficient to have a few businesses specialize in serving the handicapped. And so on.

It's not a comfortable argument to make, but at least it's true.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/702
The author at Economic Investigations in a related article titled News of the World #34 writes:
    Elsewhere… Coercion Coercive Regulation and the Balance of Freedom, Edward Glaeser doesn’t pay attention to Klein definition either and conflates “coercion” with “use of or threat with force”. Ed Glaeser on Utility, ... [Tracked on May 13, 2007 5:27 AM]
COMMENTS (12 to date)
shecky writes:

Those lazy paraplegics need to quit whining and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Oh, and it would be wise to not take bullshit too seriously.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

Here in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, the local council are putting in a kind of bumpy paving slab sequence at every pedestrian crossing in the city, and many of the steps leading to bridges etc have a ribbed paving slab inserted.

These are supposed to give a warning signal to blind people.

There are many hundreds (probaby thousands) of these pieces of engineering, and I would guess each one costs some thousands of pounds (taking several workers with heavy machines several days to build).

Most blind people are elderly and infirm and do not go out in the street - I have seen maybe less than six able bodied blind people out and about in the last decade - maybe there are a hundred in the city? (I mean people who are actually unable to see at all - not 'registered' blind which is a very different thing.)

One obvious question is whether instead of bumpy pavements these blind people would prefer - say - an extra few thousand pounds a year to spend as they will on increasing mobility (taxi cabs, employing carers etc).

The answer is obvious, and it seems very likely that the real reason for these engineering works is to provide jobs for local government (I would guess there is some kind of grant coming from central govt. or maybe the EU for this purpose).

The scheme also provides the basis for self-congratulation and moral advertisment among local government managers about how much they are helping the blind.

It seems a pretty shabby business to me. A classic interest group driven policy. Economically wasteful and almost entirely ineffective in achieving its avowed objectives.

dearieme writes:

Bruce, do entertain the possibilty that those who wish such things on us are motivated mainly by the desire to flaunt their hearts on their sleeves, and that they feel that the more conspicuously our money is wasted, the more authentic their gesture is.

Kent Gatewood writes:

A lady in downtown Oklahoma City tripped on a wheelchair cut; broke her leg, I think. I've stumbled on them. My wife broke her ankle at a curb assuming there was a cut. There is a cost that is ignored.

Nacim writes:

I would love to see more Caplan commentary on Penn&Teller episodes.

Lee writes:

Do I have special powers that allow me to see kookiness coming, or did everyone detect that the show's expert was involved with the Objectivist center by his intonation, tie, and mustache?

It's a lot more efficient to have a few businesses specialize in serving the handicapped. And so on.

There it is, Penn and Teller's argument in a nutshell.

hanmeng writes:

Some global solutions are simply wasteful. A few years ago all doorknobs inside the university buildings where I work were replaced with handles to make them more handicapped accessible, although the vast majority of people in the offices certainly didn't need them. Even worse, although the curbs on the street corners in our small college town were changed to ramps, but I still see many wheel chair users who prefer using the street.

th writes:

My friend was in a motorcycle accident and is now a paraplegic. He was complaining to me that his government assistance is a dis-incentive to getting a job since working would end most of his assistance money. He calculated that he would need to make almost $90K in order to match the government funding, which would be impossible since he is young and therefore inexperienced.

I don't know it that's true or not, just his point of view.

Mike writes:
but they also mean that, wherever you go, the best parking is almost always at least half-empty

Unless you live in a small town in central KY like I do. There is an entire row of handicapped parking at the local Walmart (apx 100 spaces) and it is always packed.

P&T's point as far as I can see it is that many of these spots are taken by those without the serious and concerning handicaps you mention above. A large majority in my town are taken by very obese people who use electric carts in the store. Perhaps if the convenience of a handicap aisle and electric cart were limited, they might have at least a small incentive to be healthier.

Horatio writes:

Penn and Teller are full of good ideas. After watching their episode on immigration, I decided to hire illegals for my next move. I can rent my own Penske truck and hire a couple of day laborers to help me move for half the cost of the major moving companies. I feel good knowing the money I pay them will not be taxed by the government.

jordan writes:

I found this article to be quite interesting mainly because I have always wondered what percentage of handicap parkers actually need handicap parking. As a college student on a campus with a serious parking issue, I have seen quite a few students taking advantage of handicap parking passes. I agree that the cost of providing handicap parking is high, but it is impossible to measure that cost against benefits because the benefits are so difficult to measure in this situation. Closer parking may help or hinder a disabled person depending on the point of view.

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