Sunscreen and Power Tools

The spinning blade of a table saw cutting wood...

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Freakonomics has an interesting post regarding government safety regulations, particularly examining issues of sunscreen and table saws. The comments are interesting as well. Lots of people are struggling with the issues of what should be the scope of government regulation.

I am skeptical of most of the claims.

First, it’s pretty clear that all the costs and benefits can’t be accounted for since the data is distributed and many consequences are indirect. Claims that the benefits outweigh the costs are simply not credible. Sometimes this becomes obvious, as in the New York City Calorie Posting laws, but the actual consequences are usually unknown and unknowable.

Second, if the benefits of regulation are really so great, they will materialize without regulation. If a safer table saw works as envisioned, businesses will see the result in workman’s compensation costs. More effective sunscreen will sell itself. Fans of regulation will argue that some people are just too stupid and need to be protected. But what’s to prevent Stupid Guy from disabling the safety mechanisms on the saw? “Hey guys, watch this!”

Fans of regulation have an easy time of pointing out what appears beneficial and aligned with common sense. But they can only see what can be seen, and as Bastiat taught the world, what is unseen is often of greater import.

This is not to say that regulation is uniformly bad. Some regulation is probably good – it’s just very hard to separate the good from the bad.

As a practical matter, I’d be much happier if regulations required a very high threshold of acceptance in order to exist.

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