Unlimited power and Biden’s “one life saved” yardstick

Vice President Joe Biden brushed aside concerns about the expansion of government power, in the name of gun control, by declaring: “As the President said, if your actions result in only saving one life, they’re worth taking.”

This statement is a useful Rosetta stone of pure foolishness.  To take the most obvious point first, if the only restriction on government power is the requirement that each new action must “save at least one life,” the door is flung wide for any tyrant wearing a smiley-face pin.  It would not be difficult for every conceivable usurpation of individual rights to be justified on the grounds that it would save at least one life, especially since the acolytes of the total State would be the ones rating each new power grab for its life-saving potential.

Jonah Goldberg of National Review made this point neatly in a syndicated column:

The notion that any government action is justified if saves even a single life is malarkey, to borrow one of Mr. Biden’s favorite terms. Worse than that, it’s dangerous malarkey.

Let’s start with the malarkey part. The federal government could ban cars, fatty foods, ladders, plastic buckets, window blinds or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative the government do any of that? It’s a tragedy when people die in car accidents (roughly 35,000 fatalities per year), or when kids drown in plastic buckets (it happens an estimated 10 to 40 times a year), or when people die falling off ladders (about 300 per year). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?

Now one obvious response to this sort of argument ad absurdum is to say, “We don’t have to ban buckets or cars to reduce the number of deaths. We can simply regulate them.” And that’s true.

Indeed, that’s the point. But when we regulate things, we take into account things other than the singular consideration about saving lives. Banning cars would cost the economy trillions — and also probably cost lives in various unintended ways. So we regulate them with speed limits, seat belt requirements, etc. And even here we accept a certain number of preventable deaths every year. Regulators don’t set the speed limit at five miles per hour, nor do they make highway guardrails 50 feet high.

Biden’s statement also captures the way emotionalism trumps logic during a debate such as this.  It’s a clear effort to disable the reasoning capacity of voters through an impassioned appeal: We must do something, anything, right now!

And it’s not difficult at all to come up with examples of actions Joe Biden would oppose with every fiber of his being, even though they would indisputably save a large number of lives.  Radio host Mark Levin emphasized a couple of them on his show Thursday night: lifting the fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and lifting the ban on the pesticide called DDT.

Those fuel efficiency standards – which Barack Obama is raising, to nearly absurd heights – result in smaller, lighter cars, which lead to more deaths in automobile accidents.  This is a remote consideration for Obama and Biden, because they do not travel in such light cars.  Their limousines and armored transports are incredibly massive.  But there is no serious dispute that many lives – far more than one – are lost each year due to high fuel efficiency standards.  And they don’t even reduce fuel consumption by as much as government planners assumed, because people tend to drive more as cars grow cheaper to operate.

And the banning of DDT led to a veritable mountain of corpses, due to the spread of malaria in Third World countries.  The entirely hypothetical health risks of DDT exposure – exaggerated beyond reason in one of the first great “victories” for junk science – were cited to ban it, but countless very real deaths resulted in its absence.  A new drug-resistant strain of malaria is brewing in Asia right now.

This also serves to illustrate the way opportunity costs are rarely considered, when the wisdom of government action is evaluated.  The “unintended consequences” of such actions are ignored.  The people who support rising CAFE standards or the DDT ban become very angry when the cost in human lives is mentioned, because they don’t think it’s “fair” to consider the consequences of their policies in such full measure.  And when those same people want to grab guns, they’ll cite a few particular crime victims for justification… without wanting to discuss all the innocent people who successfully use guns to defend themselves and their families.

This failure to appreciate the full consequences of their actions extends into every aspect of the statist impulse – don’t ask them about what the private sector might have done with the money they seize in taxes, or how many jobs might have been retained without ObamaCare.  They want every proposal evaluated purely on the limited grounds they set forth.  It’s a rigged game, although most of them do a more subtle job of loading the dice than Joe Biden.