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Posts Tagged ‘unintended consequences’

Distractions of Attentive Government

January 27, 2011 2 comments

Public safety is a proper role of government. I can empathize with those concerned with limiting the dangers of distracted driving even if I’m skeptical of the effectiveness of new laws to prohibit distractions such as cell phone use. But even if you agree that government should pursue such goals, today’s New York Times story on “distracted pedestrians” reminds us that sometimes we’d be better off with more inattentive legislators.

That is the theory of several lawmakers pushing the latest generation of legislation dealing with how devices like iPods and cellphones affect traffic safety. The ubiquity of interactive devices has propelled the science of distraction — and now efforts to legislate against it — out of the car and into the exercise routine.

In New York, a bill is pending in the legislature’s transportation committee that would ban the use of mobile phones, iPods or other electronic devices while crossing streets — runners and other exercisers included. Legislation pending in Oregon would restrict bicyclists from using mobile phones and music players, and a Virginia bill would keep such riders from using a “hand-held communication device.”

Politicians’ imagined need to solve every problem becomes pernicious when they don’t weigh the consequences of their own action. As much as I’m receptive to the libertarian critique of nanny-state government, the need for personal responsibility, and the state’s misallocated focus on trivial problems like exercisers’ music I think their emphasis is sometimes misplaced.

Governments shouldn’t not ban ipods because it’s runners own fault if they get hit by a car or because government inherently shouldn’t treat citizens like children but because the state needs to be sure their attempt to solve one problem won’t be replaced by other problems of indeterminate repercussion.

In this case, it is not even clear pedestrians distracted by technology is what is causing the uptick in fatalities. The increase is contained to just “the first six months of 2010” among a national drop going back years. News flash: people listening to music and talking on their phones while on a jog isn’t that novel.  So banning the activity might not only do very little to solve “the problem” but any minor benefit might result in less exercise, less efficiency, and less enjoyment. Can anyone in America really argue right now that our problem is too much excerise?

Texting And Unintended Consequences

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

From time to time, I throw up a post about unintended consequences because it nicely illustrates the limits and problems with government action. This should always be kept in mind whenever I or anyone else advocates for any particular policy from the state. Although, recognizing that unintended consequences follow from almost every policy (the larger the more potential unintended consequences) shouldn’t paralyze us. The status quo’s consequences might just be worse than any result of the policy. Yet, it should humble us and remind us to pursue as minimal intervention as possible to correct any negative externality.

In Massachusetts a texting ban while driving will soon go into effect. But the a recent study found texting bans making things worse.

Researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute compared rates of collision insurance claims in four states — California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington — before and after they enacted texting bans. Crash rates rose in three of the states after bans were enacted.

The Highway Loss group theorizes that drivers try to evade police by lowering their phones when texting, increasing the risk by taking their eyes even further from the road and for a longer time.

Another reminder that having empirical data to back one’s case, not just good intentions, can lead to better policy and better outcomes.

I’d Rather Cut Government

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Public health officials are again trying to push new food guidelines on businesses and Americans.  John Tierney looks at some of the potential problems with their new plan to reduce America’s salt intake.

That’s the beauty of the salt debate: there’s so little reliable evidence that you can imagine just about any outcome. For all the talk about the growing menace of sodium in packaged foods, experts aren’t even sure that Americans today are eating more salt than they used to.

Unintended Consequences Should Never Be Unexpected

January 18, 2010 Leave a comment

According to The British Psychological Society the scary warnings mandated by the government on cigarette packs might actually encourage people to light up.

Researchers have found that death-related health warnings on cigarette packs are likely to encourage some people to smoke. The surprising result is actually consistent with ‘Terror-management Theory’, according to which thoughts of mortality cause us to cling more strongly to our cultural beliefs and to pursue ego-boosting activities.

Christopher Buckley, I’m sure must get a kick out of this.

(h/t freakonomics)
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