All Commentary
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bureaucrats Keep Us Safe?

Not in this world.

One of the Holy Writs of Progressivism is that government rules and regulations keep us safe. Thanks to government orders, claim Progressives, we have safer cars, safer food, and safer homes. Were it not for the bureaucracies, they argue, our lives would be fraught with danger.

The favorite tool of the bureaucracies is what economists call “command and control,” the point of which is that certain procedures or devices ordered by the government ensure safety; anyone who argues against the command must be against safety. For example, when some people called for relatively small changes in the Clean Water Act, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote that they wanted feces to wash up on the nation’s beaches.

Granted, that is an extreme example, but it certainly reflects the Progressive mentality. We see the same thinking at work in a recent move by Houston authorities to stop a Christian husband and wife from feeding homeless people:

Bobby and Amanda Herring spent more than a year providing food to homeless people in downtown Houston every day. They fed them, left behind no trash and doled out warm meals peacefully without a single crime being committed, Bobby Herring said.

That ended two weeks ago when the city shut down their “Feed a Friend” effort for lack of a permit. And city officials say the couple most likely will not be able to obtain one.

Why did the city do it? The explanation is pure Progressive bureaucratese:

Anyone serving food for public consumption, whether for the homeless or for sale, must have a permit, said Kathy Barton, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department. To get that permit, the food must be prepared in a certified kitchen with a certified food manager.

The regulations are all the more essential in the case of the homeless, Barton said, because “poor people are the most vulnerable to foodborne illness and also are the least likely to have access to health care.”

One has to step back and absorb what this bureaucrat said and properly interpret it: It is better that people have more difficult access to food than to have food that in theory might pose a health problem. Now, there is no evidence the food, which was prepared by local businesses and donated to the couple, had any problems. Could government food pass the same safety test? We’re all are aware of the high quality of government-produced goods and services. That would include public schools, prisons — and especially prison food and medical care – and many public hospitals. Enough said.

Even the homeless “establishment” agreed with the city:

Connie Boyd, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, applauded the Herrings’ efforts but defended the city’s stance.

“We absolutely need more people like them who care about this vulnerable population,” Boyd said. “Even though their intentions are good, they ran into ordinances that are designed to protect the public. There are good reasons why they’re in place.”

Understand what the authorities are regulating. The Herrings were not running a restaurant. They were distributing food prepared in restaurants that had passed regulatory inspections. (If the authorities believe that food can become tainted after it leaves the restaurants, then it follows logically that all take-outs should be banned.)

As I see it, this is not overzealous regulation; it is the natural extension of bureaucratic thinking. Once people believe that government agents protect us, there can be no end to the avenues of “protection” bureaucrats will offer.

The homeless people fed by the Herrings are not made safer by the ruling, nor are they suddenly less susceptible to food-borne illness. But it will be more difficult for them to find a meal, and when they do, most likely the food will be inferior to what they had. All in the name of safety.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.