There are two things you can pretty much always count on government to do; the first is to ignore major problems, such as our entitlement system being completely underwater, until they blow up, and the second is to blow minor concerns out of the water. We’re going to focus on the ladder here.
I can think of few better cases of this than the recent hysteria over the swine flu (the media, by the way, is just as bad if not worse than government). From last I heard, two people in the United States have died from swine flu. The regular flu kills several thousand people a year. In fact, many more people have died from the regular flu than the swine flu since the whole thing blew up in the first place. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 13,000 people have died from the regular, boring flu since January 2009. Yet the response to swine flu has been, predictably, for the government to declare a national state of emergency, shut down schools and all the rest. It’s just like the bird flu or SARS or the Spanish Influenza (OK scratch that last one).
At least this is better than making something out of nothing, which is never beyond our magnificent Congress. Swine flu is at least noteworthy and much better than say, holding hearings on college football’s BCS system that is “deeply flawed“, according to Republican congressman Joe Barton. Well of course it is, and yes we need a playoff, however, I feel our elected legislators have better things to do.
Regardless however, of whether the government is blowing problems out of proportion or simply making problems up, if the issue gains steam then the public demands something is done. Even if the public doesn’t care, just doing something seems to make our elected representatives feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, what this “doing of something” usually implies is a string of unnecessary, burdensome, red tape. Red tape that slows down innovation and increases costs for producers and consumers alike. And this ignores the anxiety stirred up among average people that really need not be felt. Being careful is always a good idea, but the media circus and overblown government reaction surrounding swine flu goes way overboard.
It reminds me of an old piece John Stossel made called Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? In it he asks if a new home heating fuel came on the market which was invisible, odorless, explosive and will kill hundreds of people each year, should we ban it. Almost everyone present said they’d ban it. However, what Stossel was talking about was simply natural gas. Something we all already use. What’s new scares us, even if it really isn’t that dangerous. What’s old doesn’t, even if it is dangerous. Swine flu is new, thus scary, even though it’s only killed two people in the United States. The regular flu is old and common, thus not scary, even though it kills thousands of people a year.
Yes, death is always tragic, but regulation, government mandates and emergency procedures often divert far more resources to protect us against these threats then is truly necessary. Those resources could likely have been used to save many more lives had they been used more efficiently. So ad hoc regulations and emergency procedures may make public officials feel important, but they often do more harm than good. Again, it’s always wise to be careful, and I’m not saying the government, or even the media, should ignore such things. I’m just saying they all need to simmer down about it.