Monday, September 28, 2015

Regulatory Penumbrella

There was a lunar eclipse last night. Where I am, the sky was overcast, so we couldn't see it. Even so, pedagogical opportunities like these arise seldom enough that I sat my 3 year old daughter down to explain to her the difference between an umbra and a penumbra. If you recall from your fifth grade astronomy class, the umbra is the region of complete occlusion. It's the full shadow, where the entire light source is obscured. The penumbra is the region of partial occlusion, where the foreign object is only partly covering the light source. Last night's eclipse created a penumbral region on the moon.

It occurred to me as I was attempting to explain this to a child whose attention was fixed on the necklace she was alternately creating and destroying—rather than what her completely, wholly, and utterly fascinating daddy was saying—is that it's pretty easy to see regulatory umbra: black-letter OSHA regulations can be parsed and obeyed, ATF fun police commands are available for perusal, even the PPACA is written down and given how much time has elapsed since it was passed, possibly even read by now. What we might more easily miss are the contours of the regulatory penumbra.

Every now and again, some joker will round up a hard copy of the Federal Register (the collection of regulations issued from DC) and pose in a photograph standing next to it. The puny human is dwarfed by the mighty stacks of dot-matrix printed paper, but even such stunts are a little misleading. If you're ever in my neck of the woods, hit me up and I'll take you to the Jefferson Reading Room at the LoC and we can take a gawk at the non-photo-op version together. It's been some time since I've done the pilgrimage, and I often get a belly chuckle out of opening to a (quasi-)random page to find some gem some long-forgotten rep used to roll a constituent's log oh so long ago. Still, the FedReg (as no one on Earth calls it) is small potatoes compared to the voluminous pile that constitutes the sundry state, county, and local ordinances that "govern" commerce throughout America. Regressively (and aggressively, and repressively), I might add.

What these skeins of interference represent to the bit of me steeped in public choice economics is orgiastic rent-seeking threaded in the weft of American society. Favored constituents plead the sovereign for slime-drenched special favors and with a twinkling of a gilt pen, hey-presto, incumbent hairdressers (to pick some low-hanging fruit) are granted a state-protected oligopoly. Of course, this quite naturally implies that should some enterprising kid seek to hang a shingle of her own, the list of available wildcat profession shrinks with each and every entreaty. And if the stories of cops shutting down kids' lemonade stands represent systemic trends rather than isolated incidents, then the lessons start early.

The regulatory umbra looks at the entrepreneurship trammeled by existing interference. It is large and ominous enough. The regulatory penumbra constitutes those efforts likely to attract the interference of a Bernie of overseers. I casually estimate that it blots out the whole of the sun.

Taking risks is already not particularly euvoluntary. Including a guillotine on hair trigger does not make it more so.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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