So: I’m a progressive, and I tend to support candidates that other people call “communists,” “socialists,” or just “too liberal.” What do they mean by that? Who knows? People believe all sorts of crazy shit.
But here’s what I want my progressive friends to hear, in case they don’t know it already: When Ronald Reagan said “Government isn’t the answer, government is the problem,” he had a point. And if you don’t mow your own grass, you might not understand why.
Back in 2009, for environmental and safety reasons, the Federal government killed the idea of a simple gas can. The sort of thing you carry to the gas station, fill up, and bring home to fuel your lawnmower. The new federal standard — which I’m not going to attempt to explain — means that all new gas cans come with over-complicated spouts and no vents.
They’re a lot more expensive, they’re a pain in the ass, and they still do the thing that they were designed to avoid: They leak. And if you run lots of small engines, like I do, they basically make it impossible to transfer gas from one can to another — a requirement if some of your equipment runs on a mixture of oil and gasoline.
Why did the federal government do this? Why did the result turn out so laughably bad? It’s hard to tell, given the way technocrats write about the standards they’re creating and the problems they’re trying to solve. But the point is, no matter how well intended, the government wrote a rule to protect the environment, it annoyed the shit out of people, and it didn’t work.
And nobody knows exactly why.
This isn’t the only example I could point out. Environmental and safety issues are a playground for federal regulators and special interests. It’s why, for instance, modern small engines don’t work as well or last as long. In some cases, the problems are brought on by manufacturers trying to meet “fleet standards” for emissions and designing bad engines. In others, its a direct regulatory prohibition. Wonder why you can’t adjust the idle on your lawnmower? Uncle Sam says you can’t.
And don’t get me started on ethanol — the corn-derived fuel additive that attracts water vapor to your gas tank. It murders small engines, which is why I’ve been buying Premium for my machines for the past few years: It used to be (and I tested it myself) that premium didn’t have ethanol in it. But in most states — including South Carolina, apparently — that’s not true anymore. Yesterday I had to use pliers to remove a “needle valve” from a carburetor. Oxidized to shit in less than two years.
Why? Because ethanol means big money in corn-producing states, and the ethanol lobby has disproportionate power in Washington. Is it better for the environment? I don’t know. Is it better for Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley? Absolutely. We don’t have ethanol because people want ethanol. We have ethanol because the government mandates its use.
Now, I can also sit here and reel off a bunch of examples of government regulation doing great things for people. Ever notice how the violent crime rate started dropping in the 1990s? That’s because the EPA forced manufacturers to take lead out of paint and sell unleaded gasoline back in the 1970s. Conservatives bitched about “the nanny state,” but the kids who grew up without being poisoned on a daily basis were more likely to become productive and healthy adults and less likely to commit violent crimes. Banning DDT saved the American Bald Eagle from extinction. And so on.
But just as some imaginary “free market” isn’t the magical answer to every problem, markets work great at sorting out other problems. And conversely, well-meaning government programs aren’t the answer to every problem.
I want Medicare For All or something like it because health care is one of those things that “free markets” can’t properly deliver. Same thing with public education, food safety, and environmental protection. I think it’s immoral to privatize profits while socializing risks and costs. That’s why I’m a progressive.
But I’m telling y’all: The No. 1 reason people shut down when we talk about addressing the Global Climate Crisis has nothing to do with the science — and everything to do with a lawnmower that won’t start and a leaky gas can that won’t pour and government-mandated gasoline that ruins everything it touches.
“I’m from the government, I’m here to help you,” my good friend says sarcastically every time I talk about this stuff. And he’s not wrong to be skeptical. Trust is everything, and it just plain sucks that the best thing I can say in reply is, “yeah, those gas cans sure are dumb, but when it comes to regulating international carbon emissions, we’ll get that right.”
Fixing dumb government bureaucracy ought to be a part of every progressive platform, because if you’re proposing government solutions, your credibility is riding on those solutions actually working. And we are starting at a deficit.
For the most part, people want to be left alone to live as they please. That ought to be a progressive value, and we ought to talk about why progressive policies are better at protecting and extending liberties. But we don’t.