David R. Henderson  

Friday Night Video: An Education in Debt

Do we really want to control h... Google vs the EU...

The Independent Institute has produced a 5-video series called "Love Gov." It's a series of humorous skits in which the government is personified. I've seen only the first but it's excellent.

It also hits one of co-blogger Bryan Caplan's main themes: about the value or absence of value in going to college.

My comments follow the video below.

What I like about the series so far is the whole idea of personifying government. Indeed it reminds me of something I wrote in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:

We have had government needling us and interfering with and threatening us for the whole of our lives, starting, for most of us, from the time we hit kindergarten, letting up some when we graduate from high school, and then eating away at us day to day for the rest of our lives. So we become oblivious to it--it just seems like the way things are. But a recent Candid Camera skit reminded me of how really outrageous the government is. In the skit, a waitress told people who ordered a dish on the menu that they couldn't have it because it wasn't good for them. Instead, she'd bring what she thought was good for them. People got very incensed about it. Many of them defended their right to order what they wished and got up angrily to walk out. It's the most animated I've ever seen real, everyday people in defending their rights. Virtually everyone in the episode felt the same way: "How dare this waitress tell me what I can order, what kinds of goods I can ingest in my body, and how to spend my money on food!"

But guess what. Government acts like that waitress all the time. Government often intervenes in annoying ways that are none of their business. It prevents us from buying cheap oranges that might look a little blemished, but are perfectly safe. It also is currently trying to rig the rules so that almost the only kind of cheese we'll be able to eat is processed American cheese. As my late friend Roy Childs pointed out, government is incredibly petty, threatening us with fines and even prison sentences for doing things just a little different from the way some anonymous government official wants it. Government routinely makes even bigger decisions for us, from how we save for our retirement, to what kinds of changes we can make to our houses, to what kinds of prescription drugs we may take. Government, by and large, is full of strangers who often have little expertise in the areas they regulate and have virtually no knowledge of your particular goals, interests, capabilities, or concerns. Nor do most government officials even care about these things. Government is like the waitress, but with this crucial difference: The waitress was an actress, and her "victims" could easily leave the restaurant; the government is all too real and insists on controlling us as long as we stay in the country.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Damien writes:

Couldn't you make many actions taken by large, impersonal organizations look just as sinister if you personified them?

We could for instance have a skit where 'Goog' compiles a detailed list of all that you do, all that you're interested in, everywhere you've ever been, and then gathers all the information available about you online and makes it available to everyone. And there's no way for you to decide that this 20 year-old article about how you were arrested in college should not be that easy to find. That guy would be a creep, even if he also found you all the information you need to write your papers.

But there's a lot of difference between Google, as an organization, having all this data, and individual Google employees perusing all that you do for their personal enjoyment, which the personification erases.

*If* the government acted as it does in the video and hired people to personally stalk students to push loans on them and encourage them to make extravagant expenses, how long would that program last? But has the real life process of applying for student loans anything in common with this?

This video, as well as the skit about the waitress, taps into people's sense of what is appropriate in interpersonal interactions with (semi-)strangers. When you tell people they can't have a dish that's offered on the menu, you're implying that there is something specifically wrong with them (e.g. that they're too fat). Their expectation as they walk into a restaurant is that they're free to choose anything on the menu. Would people be as incensed if the waitress politely informed them that this item has been removed *for everyone* because there were health hazards?

Brad writes:

America prides itself on freedom, but most Americans today have little concept of real freedom. I lived in Seoul, South Korea for 28 months and my eyes were opened to what real, individual liberty looks like. And while South Korea ranks lower than the U.S. in Heritage’s World Economic Freedom Index, certain industries are much freer than ours.

The police in Korea mind their business not yours. You will not get pulled over for driving offenses in Korea. There are speeding cameras and the like, but an officer will not issue tickets for small driving infractions. Less interaction with police = less opportunity for things to go south.

Restaurants. As far as I can tell, anyone anywhere can open a restaurant without government permission. This allows folks with very little capital to make an honest living. There are no government food inspectors prowling around, and because a great many restaurants are mom and pop shops, there’s a built in incentive to not poison your guests.

Alcohol. I’ve walked the streets of Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, and Namdaemun with beer and wine, day and night and no one cares. I’ve brought my own wine into restaurants and not a word was said. I’ve never seen anyone carded. This made me realize that American liquor laws are insane.

Motorcycles. I owned a bike in Seoul and had free reign of the city – sidewalks, crosswalks, everything and everywhere. I’ve ridden against traffic (for a short distance, mind you). I’ve blown through red lights while Korean police looked on. Nothing was said or done.

I can only conclude that the Korean motto is – live and let live.

ThomasH writes:

Odd, my reaction to this kind of situation is whether I citizen/taxpayer want my agents to act in a particular way.

I don't so much mind the TSA agent that makes me take my computer out of its case as I wonder if my tax money is being inefficiently spent. Ditto restaurant health inspectors/agricultural product inspectors. Are the rules they are enforcing and decisions on where and when to inspect made with regard to costs of inspecting and the net benefits to consumers.

I assume that consumers demand an optimal amount of interference in their individual choice of what kinds of products are offered for sale and what kind of parcels can be carried onto airplanes. It would be inefficient not to supply that demand.

JK Brown writes:

I had a bit of a "candid camera" moment once at a local grocery. Their computer demanded that I present ID to buy a pie. I looked about, but it was just a glitch.

Now if an enterprising hacker wanted to force awareness of the government nannying, it seems that would be an interesting hack. Just set pies and other sweets to require the ID check set for alcohol and watch the fun.

Joe Kristan writes:

"The waitress was an actress, and her 'victims' could easily leave the restaurant; the government is all too real and insists on controlling us as long as we stay in the country."

They'll not stop at the border. Many Americans face ruinous fines for committing personal finance while abroad because they missed foreign financial account reporting deadlines. FATCA is making it worse.

[broken url fixed. Please proofread your personal URL even after you paste it in. --Econlib Ed.]

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