Archives for category: Public Policy

One problem in assessing public policy is the ease with which people switch away from their own perspective, and the perspectives of their fellow citizens, onto the role of Legislator or Philosopher King, ready to command the State.

The State’s perspective is quite enticing.

Common sense might suggest that simple short cuts to a desired goal can easily be managed merely by establishing a policy, and a governmental system of rewards and punishments. On top of this switched perspective is the philosophical conceit that states are established for the general, public interest, and not for capture by special interests. So every goal, no matter how particular to a specific person or group, we quickly transform in our minds from my end or your end or our end or their end to “the public good,” without much critical thinking at all.

The startling thing is how easy are the mental operations that allow us to do this. I hazard that they are pre-programmed into our brains as part of man’s hierarchical nature, as reinforced by ancient tribal cooperation and the history of military and ecclesiastical practice. But, regardless of my surmise, these operations go on in our head with amazing ease, and — this is the important part — without any need to apply critical thought to the metamorphosis from special to general (shared) interest.

This is aided greatly by both our internal biases and the very core nature of the State in society. What I call the Beneficiary Focus Illusion (existing as an entelechy in our heads) reinforces the perennial structural arrangements (existing as an entelechy within society) that divorce resource acquisition from resource dispersement while coupling dispersed costs to concentrated benefits.

Most people never bother to examine critically the process by which they transform some particular goal into the public interest. Instead, they instinctively apply the given interest “commonsensically” to political governance. From the perspective of the State. Or, uncritically, from their own perspective, or that of their favored group.

See Herbert Spencer, “From Freedom to Bondage,” for a discussion of social processes apparently at odds with “common sense.”

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One does not normally insure against chosen and regularly incurred costs, like fill-ups and oil changes in cars . . . or haircuts, waxes, and contraceptive devices on people. When insurance companies’ policies do cover regular, pre-injury/-illness purchases, they are not economically engaging in an insurance contract. They are offering a payment system, a kind of premium savings plan.

Why would they do that? Sometimes to attract customer with a convenience — an expensive convenience they expect to make money off of. But also for another reason: because they are compelled by law.

The corruption of the insurance industry by government policy has been ongoing for decades.

Especially in medical markets.

How? At a fundamental level.

Economist Friedrich Freiherr von Wieser (Social Economics, 1928, p. 149) noted that there are three kinds of “binding compensatory contracts”: exchange contracts, insurance contracts, and social contracts. Wieser noted that insurance contracts sometimes look like social contracts, sometimes like exchanges. But the resemblance to explicit social contracts is that they mimic the widespread effects usually aimed at by social contractors, but through private exchanges. An ingenious invention. Insurance provides a public good by private means. The core nature of insurance contracts Wieser explains thusly:

Its purpose is to distribute the effects of loss over many private economies. It has attained great importance in developed economies. But it has to do only with the security of the economic body, not with its creation.

Wieser did not examine this form of contract in detail. He also, in developing economic theory, put aside discussion of the social contract:

One should expect that it be adopted to the integration of the social economy. Nevertheless in its effect it has been overshadowed by the exchange contract, which although as a rule is made only between two parties, has manifested itself the coördinating instrument that binds individual economies into the national economy.

This manifestation of unexpected and unintended coördination puzzles many people. Which is perhaps one reason why, as Wieser’s student F. A. Hayek suggested, we witness much social distress regarding — and political pressure to undermine and control — market order. The coördination provided by markets is “spontaneous,” as Hayek metaphorically put it (“inadvertent” is more exact), and its mechanisms and processes mysterious, in no small part because of its inadvertence. Folks balk at accepting an unplanned order.

This is especially true of insurance contracts, which often seem “unfair.” For example, I was a very good and safe driver as a young man, ages 16–28. Never an accident. Never even a complaint. But an appreciable number of my peers drove recklessly (but not “wrecklessly”!), skewing the actuarial tables that make insurance bets doable, so my insurance rates were high. Young women, on the other hand, had far lower rates — despite my personal knowledge of many dangerous young female drivers.

But I understood the unfairness, and rallied through. Meanwhile, during that same period, feminists pushed through in my state regulations that forced insurers and their customers to pay equal rates, disregarding the sexes. Young women tend to have more medical issues, especially regarding pregnancy — which, one should note, are usually the result of free choices, not wholly accidental events — and thus are greater risks for insurance companies, requiring higher rates.

But . . . unfair!

For some reason, feminists did not push for a forced equalization of auto insurance rates.

So, consider what that regulation did: it increased the pool of insured people, bracketing out of consideration reliable data upon which insurance businesses calculated profitable rates. So, it decreased the information content of insurance rates — prices, really — and made the business decisions less efficient, and less capable of adding efficiency over the course of time.

And by equalizing men’s and women’s rates, it swept into the mix a mostly non-insurable expense: pregnancy and birth. One insures for things out of one’s control. And, except in case of rape, one can choose not to engage in sexual intercourse, the activity that causes pregnancy. So, under modern regulatory requirements, more and more people are swept into the pool with more social contract problems associated with such pools: that is, “the tragedy of the commons.” When some gain at the expense of others, they tend to opt to do just that. A common resource subject to individual exploitation tends to degrade, as has been understood since the time of Aristotle, but clarified by William F. Lloyd, Garret Hardin, and Richard Stroup. In the case here made as an example, what would normally be unforeseeable and insured-for is now intermingled with eventualities placed under a woman’s or couple’s control. Thus they are able to game the system and free ride off of it. Basically, shifting their avodiable medical expenses onto other people who do not choose to produce babies.

This jiggering with the insurance industry basics changes its very nature. But not without costs.

And it is certainly not limited to just the one example. Tax policy, regulation and now subsidy have been contriving to turn medical insurance contracts wholly into social contracts. And politicians and activists have succeeded in convincing many simpletons and distracted citizens into thinking insurance should cover events that no honest business would cover — events such as already existing disabilities, or expenses that are wholly voluntary.

Remember: One cannot “insure” against the present; one cannot “insure” against controlled outcomes. It is only future uncontrolled events with assignable probabilities that make sense to insure. Only these eventualities that can make for stable, long-term and sustainable and efficiently provided buffering of the effects of loss or injury.

But, to repeat, tax law, regulations and now subsidy — by state and federal governments — have so twisted the industry that it now is a badly run redistribution scheme, something one would normally expect from governments pretending to enforce “social contracts.”

Wieser’s “coördinating instrument” of the exchange system, and the pricing (in this case) of insurance rates, has been scuttled by people more comfortable with the seemingly “rational” — but much more ungainly and discoördinative — government policy. Also, the instrumentality of force quickens the vindictive soul, spurring folks to demand a great cause — fairness, justice. Which allows, naturally enough, for the heady mix of self-righteousness and outright oppression (for what else is forcing others?) as well as the precious social signaling that moral crusades engender.

But because information is thereby decreased, and the tragedy of the commons introduced into the industry, society is corrupted, hobbled, injured.

The very opposite result, you might think, of medical insurance policy.

And witless Americans carry on with the fiction and lies. As if they were being smart and wise. Anyone who repeats the current wisdom about medical “insurance” — such as demanding “coverage” for a wholly voluntary aid, like contraception — is a dupe or a liar.

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Friedrich von Wieser portrayed at top, in sketch; the current blogger immediately above.

You know a person isn’t serious about opposing child labor if they keep up bringing sweat shops but never mention farm work.

Traditionally, had children not worked on family farms, many families would have starved. Personally, I worked on our family farm without recompense, growing up, and also worked on other farms for money. Before I came of age. I know that this was good for me, and everyone else knows this too.

img_0056My mother grew up in the Great Depression. She was one of the family breadwinners — as a child. Only an evil person would regard this as exploitation and wrong to the point that it should have been illegal.

A close friend of mine and I both spent time picking fruit in the summers. We earned a few bucks. This was good for us, even at ages nine, ten and eleven.

Now, in the state due south of where I live, such child labor is unlawful. Or so I’m told. I do know that illegal Mexicans pick most of those crops. Progress?

Harping on sweat shops and factory work by children makes moderns feel good about themselves. It is much like imagining themselves as great opponents of slavery — despite their lack of interest in slavery rampant, today, in the Islamic world.

Harping on sweat shops and factory work by children means never having to think about context, progress, wealth creation, or even what actual conditions in most of these situations were really like. I have never met a progressive who talks about this who has read one word of the current scholarly literature on the subject. They are merely repeating stuff pushed to them by brainless high school teachers and Marxist college professors.

Every time I mention that rates of child labor were plummeting prior to child labor being regulated and then prohibited, I get blank looks or eyebrows of incredulity.

Some day these uninformed ideologues may realize that they are merely ignorant buffoons parroting dogmas of little value.

By then, though, they will have supported dozens of insane regulations and deceitful politicians.

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In the early and middle 1980s, “comparable worth” became a celebrated cause of the feminist left. The idea was to equalize wages among occupations, particularly between, for example, a well-paid occupation that tended to be manned mainly by men and a more poorly remunerated occupation mainly performed by women. The examples given at that time were often truck drivers vs. secretaries.

I witnessed several public debates on the subject, way back then. And having just begun to study economics, I quickly came to regard proponents of the “comparable worth doctrine” (CWD) as utopian lunatics. Their glee in concocting regulatory schemes was over the top, and their arguments were always and in each case economically illiterate. They looked upon all wages as mere artifacts of custom and power, never productivity. Notions like “marginal product” and “imputation” and even “supply and demand” never rose to coherence, or even the level of mere mention.

I remember one absurd discussion, where a young man argued against a then-current objection commonly made to the CWD — that comparing truckers to secretaries was comparing apples to oranges. (That is, the occupations were different enough that no wage equalization effort could make sense.) He said that the beauty of CWD was that (quoting from memory) “we mix the apples and oranges and get fruit punch, and then divvy out equal amounts!”

You see what I mean by economic illiteracy.

Now, I did not go on to become an economist. It never became my job to investigate the statistic artifacts of the period to test the doctrine. Or any other. But I did notice that in the State in which I lived, the CWD became the official doctrine of one institution: government.

My guess is that many a low-wage government and contractor job were upped to a higher level, according to some “comparable” “worth” (of a labor theory of value variety) and that taxes were quickly increased to cover.

It might be good to check to see whether this did actually happen. I would be surprised if it did not.

I am getting at something here. There is a difference between government wages and business wages. They are figured and set differently. Unlike in the market sector, politicians can and do set State employee wages. And take credit for the hikes.

The taxes? They tend not to talk much about the taxes hiked to pay for the greater drain on resources. In markets, wage hikes must be merited by business success in voluntary markets, within a context of competition for scarce consumer attention. In politics, the checks and balances are much less integral with the process. There is a high degree of arbitrariness to government worker remuneration.

I suspect something similar happens in government regarding minimum wage jobs. I know of a number of positions paid by tax funds through contracts with the state. Many of them — particularly the temporary ones — are minimum wage jobs. (Elder care, some seasonal fishery services, and a few others come to mind.) When the minimum wage requirement is raised, budget requirements are raised, and politicians shrug “cost of living” and approve a budget hike, leading directly to raised contract worker wages.

We often say, with varying degree of inaccuracy, that “consumers pay” for minimum wage hikes. (Consumers do pay, but usually indirectly.) More accurately, taxpayers pay. Quite directly.

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A late, lamented neighbor of mine once defined “just war” as “mere war.” That was a quip.

A rather cynical one.

When I read just war theory, as a teenager, the most important point, I determined (in this rarefied and rarely consulted domain of thought), was this:

In contemplating intervention into a conflict with which one’s own country is not directly involved, it is not enough merely to determine which side is more nearly in the right. One must also have good reason to believe that, by intervening, one’s State could win and establish a stable and  just peace.

Even if you know who is in the wrong, if there is no likely way of “winning,” or if one’s intervention is not likely efficacious to establish a peace, entering into the conflict is immoral.

A recent study of just war theory and history by Laurie Calhoun suggests that most uses of the tradition, especially in recent times, have been to cover for gross, murderous immorality. Not to limit warfare.

As near as I can make out, this is largely because the tradition is almost never treated seriously or rigorously in the manner indicated above.

It is telling that I have not once heard, in recent public discussion over the Syrian intervention, one mention of just war theory.

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What are the core constituencies for America’s dreadful k12 government schools? Individuals vary, but hey: I can think of seven broad groups:

  1. Sports fanatics
  2. Parents who demand babysitting services
  3. Teachers and administrators whose careers depend upon tax money
  4. Progressive social engineers who wish to supplant families and markets as the prime institutions of sociality
  5. Businesses and students, who rely upon grades, credentials, and test scores to signal suitability for jobs
  6. Governments and politicians who rely upon the public system to inculcate acceptance to social engineering and government dominance in society
  7. Parents, students and community members who earnestly think something called “education” is a good idea

Everybody pretends to be in category 7. Almost no one is really in category 7, for, if they were, they would complain about poor educational achievements more, and look into alternate means of providing education. Most do not, so most are not.

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A friend, who is resolutely anti-Trump*, comments on a current Wall Street Journal article on the Trump Towers Wiretap contention. The article goes on at unnecessary length about how a congressional committee can find no back-up for the president’s tweeted charge against his predecessor. “Political rhetoric is always B.S. to some degree,” my friend writes. “And then, there is the bullshitter-in-chief, beyond truth. ”

Well, yeah. But Donald Trump’s tweets aren’t political rhetoric as usual. Trump has gone a different direction. He is trolling for effect, to get his enemies to concentrate on the small stuff, the inconsequential malters. And since this is post-Clinton Washington, Trump knows he can say anything and stonewall.

Let Spicer and Conway take the flak and look like idiots in public. That is their job, after all. (And they have occasion to do it on a daily basis. That is for sure. They have the most demeaning job in bigly, er, Big League politics.)

But the idea that Trump was spied upon, illegally, by his predecessor is by no means incredible . . . certainly not implausible from rogue wings of the Deep State.

And the idea that there would be ready, Congress-available proof of a secret, illegal op strikes me as preposterous, making it absurd to investigate in anything like Congress’s usual perfunctory manner:

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, jointly said earlier in the day [that] there were “no indications” that Trump Tower, the Manhattan building where Mr. Trump lived and worked before assuming the presidency, was under any form of government surveillance.

Meanwhile, Trump is pushing a gimcrack, quite horrid, promise-abusing “replacement” of ObamaCare. But half the media and attentive America is distracted by . . . bullshit.

B.S. that is, alas, probably half true. True or not, it ends up making everybody look like loons.

This is precisely the wrong game for anti-Trumpers to play.

The age-old problem with warfare is that, in going to war, one becomes a mirror, a double, of one’s enemy. The anti-Trumpers are seriously reënacting the fated scenario of “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” Only they are not mimicking imperialistic Spaniards.

They are in danger of playing the Fool.

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* I, too, am anti-Trump. But no more than I was anti-Clinton, anti-Bush, and anti-Obama. Though Trump is a break with the past, in many ways, he is neither without precedent nor wholly a new kind of creature: they were all liars, fools, and knaves, in the usual politic balance; Trump is also liar, lunatic, and knave, but in a slightly different configuration, if with about the same averaged-out moral level.

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During President Trump’s first speech before Congress, in which one could discern a ramping up to increase spending on the military, the new President prominently featured — called out in the modern, “story-time segment” that Obama had made de rigueur — the wife of the slain Navy SEAL who died in an incursion into Yemen. It was a moving moment, but no one that I follow mentioned that the United States has not declared war on Yemen.

Also not mentioned? The fact that the Pentagon cannot (or will not) provide an accounting of the money it spends. It seems to me that before we throw more billions at the secretive institution, we should have a thorough audit in hand.

Correction. I saw one discussion of all this . . . by Paul Jacob, today .

Now would be a good time to not only rethink Middle East policy, but to re-consider our expensive role as world policeman. . . . During the campaign, Trump was criticized for questioning our alliances and demanding more of our allies. But he was right. I hope he’ll get tough in prodding our allies to ultimately provide their own defense.

Even more basic? Demand an audit of the Pentagon before new funds are thrown into the five-sided money pit.

U.S. military spending can be summed up in one word: overkill. Mr. Jacob calls America’s longstanding foreign policy as the “overkill always” strategy, and explains it like this:

Two truths: national defense is a necessity for a republic; national defense is a racket.

The latter is the case because the former is the case. Big spenders rely on “better safe than sorry” to always push the envelope, over-investing rather than under-investing.

Jacob identifies this as a “trap,” betting that Donald Trump “knows this.”

Before Trump ran for office, he said that sequestration cuts to the Pentagon budget had not gone far enough. But when he threw his hat into the ring, he promised to “make our military so big, so powerful, so strong that nobody — absolutely nobody — is going to mess with us.”

President Trump now proposes over fifty billion dollars in new defense spending. More soldiers, more ships, more fighter jets.

Donald Trump’s excuse for this nonsense? Well, he has followed the neocon line, claiming, contrary to all evidence, that U.S.military spending was gutted under President Obama. Further, he seems to be leaning neocon by holding to the common charge of Republican politicians to the effect that Barack “Drone-killer” Obama has not done enough in the mid-East.

The truth? That conservatives cannot handle? That even a Democratic war-hating president (who nevertheless was a war president for every day of his two terms, a new record) can do too much.

Killing innocents along with alleged bad guys in other countries that we have not duly declared war upon is one sure way to stir up resentments in those countries. And breed international terrorism.

It does not look like President Trump will bring any clarity or rationality to military spending — or coherence to foreign policy.

But I have to ask: why would Trump, who was such a skeptic of American imperial management before the election prove such a chump for the military industrial complex Official Story now?

A number of theories could be advanced. Maybe he knows that, before being sworn in, he was just talking out of his rectal region. Now he has real responsibility, and, seeing that he knows nothing, he goes along with his neocon advisors.

Or maybe he has been threatened by said complex. The military industrial complex is the strongest sector of the Deep State. They are the real rulers, and have been for some time. Perhaps we could send Gandhi into the White House and he’d quickly be seen towing the line.

How would this work? On his first or second day in office, men in black walk into Gandhi’s office unannounced, and hands the Mahatma a folder. What is in the folder? If I knew I’d tell you. But it is damning.

The folder Trump (may have) received? It could have been damning of Trump himself — it could be that he’s being blackmailed. It could be damning of the U.S. Government (the war crimes and power structure are too terrible to speak aloud). Or it could be damning of humanity itself!

Maybe the Lizard People. . . .

Or it could be all very simple. Might not Trump be caving to the military-industrial complex simply to establish another base of support?

Trump, after all, is not an idiot. He knows he needs supporters. He probably had intended to unite the country after election, but the Democratic nutball response has been so loud and divisive, any tendency he had to move to the Center (which is where I think he’d prefer to be, as I’ve written about before) has been scuttled by a lack of reason to do so. The Left and Center-Left has all but declared war on him. He gets death threats. The major newspapers have columnists and reporters who have publicly discussed assassination — and get away with it! Major Democratic figures talk about impeachment, no matter how groundless. The desperation to the left of center is palpable, and that means that appeasing them will not be a good bet.

So Trump goes the other direction.

He plays up to his core constituency. And he reaches out to the Deep State.

That would be an unfortunate consequence of the whole “Not My President” movement. But a typical unintended consequence of tribalism and overkill. Par for the political course.

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The news comedy shows are, for the most part, denunciation shows. This description fits Jon Stewart’s old topical comedy show and Trevor Noah’s lamer version; Bill Maher’s HBO warhorse, and John Oliver’s hipper variant on the same network; and, especially, the best one in the business, RT’s Redacted Tonight

The worst of the lot is surely Samantha Bee’s, but perhaps I err. I have not really been able to watch her after she left The Daily Show. Larry Wilmore’s is a little better, but, last I checked it was relentlessly race-obsessed. I feel icky after watching it — like other people feel after they’ve experienced Milo, who has a touring show, not a TV show.

Red Eye with Tom Shillue on Fox is a little less denunciatory (perhaps by being more defensive?), and Greg Gutfeld’s new weekend show is . . . well, you explain it to me. These latter two are the only non-left-leaning of such shows that I am aware of. That is, the hosts are not leftists.

Many people miss Stephen Colbert’s parody show of Bill O’Reilly. Not me. I tired of it after about the second episode. It is worth noting that YouTube’s The Young Turks works as a self-parody show — an unintentional self-parody show.

Topical comedy is hard, I am sure. Being fresh and always witty? Maddeningly difficult. That is one reason these topical comedy shows resort to relentless denunciation. When you are not being truly funny, you can rely on your audience’s out-group hatred and loathing — and self-righteous sense of in-group superiority — to maintain passion and high-pitch enthusiasm. Thus delighted laughter is replaced with derisive howls

The problem with all this is that they become uncomfortably close to the show depicted in A Face in the Crowd, the great Elia Kazan film starring Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes: grand examples of demagoguery. This is especially the case for the shows with live audiences. They want red meat (or the leftist soy-and-quinoa equivalent), and there is usually one guest who serves as the lion pride’s delectable Christian treat.

Most of these shows sport panel “debate” segments. These, of course, are played for comedy, but also for argumentative purposes, too. The better to serve the denunciation game. And yet sometimes one actually witnesses productive, honest debate. Not often. Sometimes.

Last week, mere days before the aforementioned Milo Yiannopoulis was publicly hit with a disgrace campaign based on some pedophilia-related comments he had made, the gay conservative free-speech provocateur appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Last week I wrote about his one-on-one interview with Maher at the top of the show. I could not bear to watch the panel segment with Milo . . . until yesterday, at which point I hastily put together a video about what went wrong. The problem was more than mere denunciation, though denunciations there were, all around:

I briefly comment on Vee’s explanatory video, too, so I should put up his link:

The key concepts that I tried to add to the debate are the two main problems we see in modern discourse all the time, especially on television topical comedy shows:

1. Data impasses, and

2. Contractual impasses.

Either kind of stalemate-inducing situation scuttles profitable dialogue. And, frankly, neither serves as humor, either. Sure, the second kind usually takes the form of mutual denunciation, but such cases do not seem funny to me. Not at all. They are usually excruciating.

The denunciation shows might consider growing up.

Or die. That would be good, too.

To be replaced by real interviews and real debates.

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One of the more interesting arguments for socialism is the argument from sectoral successes, that is, with particular socialistic enterprises, the prime example being roads. As libertarian economist Walter Block chided Milton Friedman once, Friedman’s support for public roads amounted to a “road socialism.” And most folks, upon hearing that, would raise an eyebrow and pull out of the driveway and say, “if this be socialism, make the most of it.” That is why socialists bring up the roads as an example of how all-sector socialism could work. 

And they have a point: our road system is awfully socialistic. Of the main features of socialism, it has all but two*: the economic good, road access, is not now provided on an egalitarian or needs basis, but instead (1) to all permitted drivers as much as they want, (2) funded by a fairly efficient set of use taxes, on fuel and licensing, etc.

Now, Professor Block has done important work showing not only that private roads do work and have worked, here and there, and could work if universalized. But, let us admit it, his (and similar) writings notwithstanding, road socialism has not been a complete disaster, and is widely popular, unquestioned.

Does road socialism provide a good blueprint for generalized, all-sector socialism? No. But instead of providing the many usual reasons given, I will suggest another way to look at it.

Road socialism in America is an excellent example of how we tend to “regulate a commons”: ruthlessly and with special attention to prosecution (and overburdening) of the poor.

Have you ever been to a traffic court? It is apparent: every unwanted or slightly dangerous behavior is criminalized. The cops are oppressive. The rules are numerous. And the system is exploitative, often nothing more than a shake-down operation. Pleading before the court, the general run of those who challenge the system tend to be abject in their petitions. And the general theme of oppression stinks up these venues, as the states and municipalities nickel-and-dime the least successful in our society.

Think of that system writ large!

On the private roads, there is a perceptible tendency for road owners to provide help, not deliver beat-downs and stick-ups. Road service is more useful than cops, in most cases. Suggestions and highway engineering that encourage safe driving have been found to be more effective than patrolling, but our commons regulators insist upon tickets, property confiscations, and even prison terms.

So there you have it. Road socialism provides a blueprint for social tyranny.

For the good of society at large, the roads should be privatized, just to make life more peaceful and less deadening. Driving need not be regulated by fear. The fact that our most socialistic sector of society is run along  authoritarian and exploitative lines should indicate what a bad idea imitating public roads would be for yet more sectors of society.

Go to traffic court, and come to your senses: no more of this! No more socialism. Please.

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* Not counting sector limitations, of course.