Liberals, Libertarians, and the CPSIA
by Virginia Postrel • Feb 12, 2009 at 1:28 pm
At Brink Lindsey's invitation, I've recently participated in a couple of events--an informal, private dinner in DC and a formal, public panel at Stanford--designed to foster alliances between liberals and libertarians (or classical liberals), or to see whether such alliances are possible. Does our shared philosophical liberalism mean we can work together on more than a tactical basis?
When you get political theorists together, they assume the big divide is over the relative weights given to equality and liberty--the old Rawls vs. Nosick split. But given the right flavor of liberals and libertarians, that's bridgeable. The real division, I believe, is over regulation. Contemporary liberals will say, as someone did at dinner in DC, that they are against stupid regulations like the controls on trucking abolished in the late 1970s. And I'm glad for that.
But finding liberals who oppose any new regulation is almost impossible--no matter what the perverse consequences. My particular bugaboo is housing.
But the CPSIA is another good example. John Holbo at Crooked Timber is wondering why the law's defenders--his fellow liberals, in other words--aren't addressing the criticisms head-on: "Maybe thrift store shopping for children should become a thing of the past, because it's too hazardous to life and limb. But, to repeat, I haven't actually seen anyone 1) argue that the law shouldn't, as written, have these really very sweeping effects; 2) argue that, even if it does, on balance it's still a good law." The comments do not encourage optimism about a liberal-libertarian/dynamist coalition.
Unfortunately, once you are ideologically committed to the idea of regulation, you can't say that a given regulation is bad--or, worse, that maybe doing nothing new would have been the best course.
Maybe, as I argued to a skeptical editor, the system worked in the case of lead in children's toys. Recalls, lawsuits, and reputational damage solved the real problem, and the CPSIA is just an extraordinarily costly way of demonstrating after-the-fact concern. But you simply cannot say such things in polite company.
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