Monday, September 22, 2014

Standards and Practices

In the brittle bones of Autumn, Jack Frost quickens, a half-dram of winter spirits freshening the pumpkins' shell. As the mercury does the timid turtle shuffle, central air switches from cool to warm, knitted sartorial delights emerge reluctantly from their summertime sequester, and stockpiles of hot cocoa begin to refresh their seasonal dalliance with those tiny puffballs named after the tuber of the Nile river flats mallow. There's a nip in the air if you will. Bundle up.

Unless you've contracted services with a day care provider. In which case, you've also "agreed" to the regulations of your state's department of family services. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, it's the "Department of Social Services" and here are the standards for licensed family day homes, effective July 17, 2013 published by this most august of public agencies. In there (p. 66) is a ban on blankets for children under 2 years of age.

The standard argument for state intervention is that, on occasion, private voluntary association is insufficient to obtain desirable outcomes. Because by cutting corners on things like safety or attention, agents can pocket the cost savings and lie to the principal about the lapse. In a daycare, the kids are too naive to reliably monitor shoddy supervision.

So there is at least a theoretical case for third-party monitoring of home care providers. But dare I say the 120 pages of regulations curated by our friends at the VA DSS runs a small-scale version of what Hume warned about in Of Commerce or what economist Robert Higgs calls the "ratchet effect" or  what Munger colorfully refers to as the "metastasis of the state." Bureaucrats bear next to no cost for adding to the stock of mandates. Indeed, since monitoring duties serve to encrease the dominions of their office, they benefit from adding regulations whose marginal cost to parents exceed the marginal benefit.

But I suspect that state-mandated regulations about the sort of bedding caregivers can use will be politically popular even though suffocation risks for an 18 month old toddler are remote. Safety rhetoric is high status, and since daycare costs are at least party socialized (thank you, taxpayers of Virginia for paying for my daughter's lunch despite the fact that my household income is a bit above median in one of the top 5 highest income counties in the US), benefits are concentrated and costs are diffuse. It's a tiny hassle for me to bring a jumper for my kid to sleep in, and only a small fraction of my state taxes go towards DSS, while I get to enjoy the marginal peace of mind that my kid who seems to be able to sleep comfortably with blankets in our home at night, faces no such threat from killer fabrics as she dozes off for a couple of hours in midday.

Ex post regret is the moral sentiment here. Worst-first and at-any-cost thinking dominates discussions of children (follow Free Range Kids for more examples) well beyond what should be reasonable using rational risk analysis. And because of the logic of public choice, it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Unless of course, sensible constituents can wrest from the Helen Lovejoys of America the mundane moral apotheosis and shame enforcement agencies into sticking to the crucial purpose of their charter: to investigate and prosecute actual, systematic abuse of children. The War on Fluffy Pillows wastes vital public resources.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?