To Read Jonathan Chait, Or Beat My Head Against the Wall, That Is the Question

Jonathan ChaitWow was I excited when I saw that Jonathan Chait had written a new article with a promising title, Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments. Chait was been writing a lot about Education Reform recently, an issue he knows little about. So this sounded great, especially since for years, I have been harping on the nonsense about local government always being better. In fact, it is usually local governments that are most abusive and corrupt.

But Chait decided to partake of a healthy dose of false equivalence with an argument so facile it barely occupies a single dimension. Chait claimed that after Ferguson, “The problem, Democrats and Republicans concurred, was militarized police.” Really?! Because I don’t remember that. I remember Rand Paul going on about it. And I remember some liberals talking about it as one of many problems. But that was it. As is sometimes the case, Chait was really stretching to make his “I am the great centrist!” argument connect. And that was his second sentence!

After pointing out the “Orwellian monstrosity” in Ferguson, where the government bleeds the poor dry with fines as a way to fund the government, he went on to equate it to small minded politicians in cities who won’t agree to increase zoning or get rid of licensing requirements for barbers or dental hygienists.[1] There are a couple of problems with this. First, of course: they really aren’t equivalent. What is going on in Ferguson (and to one extent or another, everywhere) is not nearly as bad as disallowing people to start barber shops in their apartments.

Second, what liberals are against getting rid of these laws? Unlike the “local is always better” argument on the right, there is not widespread agreement about these policies on the left. I’ve been talking about housing density and stupid regulations for a long time. As a small businessman myself, I hate all the stupid regulations that are far more of a burden on me than they are on larger businesses. I especially hate inventory taxes, which have made me completely stop selling things like books and computer equipment. I know a lot of liberals haven’t figured out some of this stuff yet. But it is largely because they are too focused on cops shooting kids in the street.

Another thing is that Chait was swinging wildly in the article. Although licensing and housing do add to inequality, they are minor parts of it. The major aspects of inequality are due to systemic policies at all levels of government that take from the poor and give to the rich. Allowing anyone to start their own barber shop is a good idea, but it would simply redistribute money among people who are relatively poor. It would do nothing about the major inequality that is at the very top of the income scale. What Chait has offered is similar to conservatives saying that inequality is all about education. It isn’t. And allowing more people to be barbers or dental hygienists isn’t going to revolutionize our macro-economy.

What’s more disappointing about Chait’s article is that he’s just using Ferguson as an excuse to push his pet policy changes. He noted that licensing requirements exist because they protect people who are already in a particular field. But he made no mention of why Ferguson is effectively running a con on its poorest citizens: because they just won’t raise taxes. This is just a way of taking the local taxes that are generally pretty flat and making the poor pay far more than their fair share. These kind of fee and penalty based systems exist because it would never fly to have such an outrageously regressive tax.

I’m really beginning to wonder if it is even worth reading Jonathan Chait anymore. Over the last month, he seems determined to claim some kind of middle ground of practical-libertarianism. But as in this article, he doesn’t provide any details. There’s a lot more to changing the barber profession than licensing! But instead, it’s just, “Yeah, those Republicans are bad; but look at the Democrats!” And there are any number of other columnists I already avoid for that reason. I read the better conservative writers. I don’t need someone who is trying to thread the needle without trying very hard.

[1] Chait apparently doesn’t know any more about dentistry than he does education. The major cost premium with hygienists is not their licensing, it is that they have to work under the “supervision” of a dentist. But it shows a shocking lack of understanding of what hygienists do to think that the job is equivalent to cutting hair. If you aren’t going to have licensing requirements for hygienists, I don’t see the need for licensing requirements for dentists. And, in fact, I don’t see the need for licensing requirements for dentists. But I doubt Chait would agree, and regardless, that would never happen because dentists have lots of money. It is typical of what Chait calls “modern Democrats” to do this kind of surface level analysis that will end in — Get ready for a big surprise! — more competition added to a market except where it might hurt the profits of the already rich.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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