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Jewish World Review April 16, 2001 / 23 Nissan, 5761

George Will

George Will
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Consumer Reports

The costs of moral exhibitionism -- SHOULD automobiles be made as safe as possible? Most people might reflexively answer, "Certainly." But the indisputably correct answer is, "Certainly not."

Automobiles designed to sacrifice all values to that of safety would have a maximum speed of perhaps 15 miles per hour. They would be heavily reinforced in fuel-inefficient ways. They would have no radios or other possible distractions. And, by the way, if safety were society's sovereign goal, traffic laws would include a ban on (among many other things) left turns, which are risky.

Reasonable people do not talk about subordinating all values to any single value, be it safety, health, freedom, virtue, even justice. Fiat justitia ruat coelum(Let justice be done, though the heavens fall)? Heaven forbid. Falling heavens are costly. Balancing competing values is inevitable.

Which brings us to today's arsenic argument. Many people, uninterested in the pertinent science, denounce President Bush for overturning President Clinton's eleventh-hour regulation requiring the reduction of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts. Such people must believe, or want other people to believe, that water should be made "as safe as possible."

Are such people positive -- if so, how? -- that the health benefits of reaching that new standard would be worth the estimated cost of, for example, $400 million to New Mexico? How do such people know New Mexico could best use that $400 million that way rather than on more schools, courts, hospitals?

Bush's critics mostly misunderstand, or misrepresent, his decision, which is not to affirm the 50 parts per billion standard but to question the cost-benefit rationale of an 80 percent reduction. Often, as environmental standards increase in severity, health benefits increase minimally and costs increase exponentially.

And there are unanticipated consequences. Disregard the demagoguery about Bush's favoring "polluters" who "put" arsenic into water. Most of the arsenic in America's water is put there by nature. It is mostly in groundwater in rural, not industrial, areas. And in rural jurisdictions with small tax bases, the Clinton standard might have increased water costs so much that people would have dug their own wells, thereby increasing their exposure to arsenic.

One anticipatable, and desirable, consequence of Bush's presidency will be less moral exhibitionism (e.g., Clinton's arsenic regulation, which he evidently considered less-than-pressing business during seven years and 11 months of his administration) and more economic reasoning. For an introduction to such reasoning, try a new novel published, implausibly, by the MIT Press. "The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance," by Russell Roberts, an economist, is the delightfully didactic story of a budding romance between two teachers at a Washington private secondary school -- he teaches economics, she English.

Instructing his class in the unintended consequences of government interventions in complex systems, the young economist tells his class about the elimination of wolves from Yellowstone in the first half of the 20th century. Wolves eat beavers, so beavers benefited, right? Not exactly. Wolves eat elk. Intensified grazing by the exploding elk population stripped vegetation from the banks of streams, including willow and aspen that beavers need for food. The beaver population plummeted.

In "The Invisible Heart" the young economist asks his class: There are 531 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, worldwide, and world consumption is 16.5 billion barrels annually, so when will all the oil be gone? Answer: Never. Why? Consider the Nut Room.

Suppose you love pistachio nuts, and are given a room filled with them to a level of five feet. But you must eat them in the room, and must leave the shells. When will you have eaten all the nuts? Never. As it becomes increasingly difficult to find nuts amid the shells, the nuts will not be free anymore. When the cost -- in time and effort -- of the nuts becomes too high, a substitute will be preferred -- nuts from a store, or another snack.

And before the most-costly-to-extract barrels of oil are found, we will switch to cheaper energy sources. Meanwhile, might it not be reasonable to extract the most accessible oil? Such as that in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Do the costs of drilling there (in one-hundredth of 1 percent of the refuge, where there already are roads, airstrips, houses, military installations) really outweigh the costs of not drilling (higher energy costs, slower economic growth, increased national dependency)?

Political argument is becoming a puerile cartoon about the moral (e.g., environmentalists) doing battle with the immoral (e.g., "polluters"). This is a consequence of regarding a blithe indifference to the costs of moral exhibitionism as evidence of moral superiority.

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04/10/01: Enduring Arthur Miller: Oh, the Humanities!
04/06/01: Reading China
03/30/01: The Senate's Comic Opera
03/26/01: A second decade of economic trouble?
03/22/01: McCainism, the McCarthyism of today's "progressives"
03/19/01: Skirting what the First Amendment says
03/16/01: The SAT's thankless task
03/12/01: Fending Off the Speech Police
03/08/01: Democrat turnabout?
03/05/01: Let us hope not!
03/01/01: Duck! Our racial and ethnic spoils system is spinning out of control
02/26/01: Common Sense and the Constitution
02/22/01: Brooklyn's Artsy Dodgers
02/20/01: Whose surplus is it, anyway?
02/16/01: A truly inclusive holiday
02/12/01: Within the realm of Bush's tax cut
02/08/01: A season spoiled
02/05/01: Keeping faith behind initiatives
02/01/01: Tall order for a few federal dollars
01/29/01: You ain't seen nothin' yet
01/26/01: 'Art' Unburdened by Excellence
01/22/01: The monkey that could mean the end
01/19/01: The real enemy in the drug war
01/15/01: Congress just isn't big enough
01/12/01: Clinton's mark
01/08/01: All that is jazz
01/04/01: Bush's picks reveal Right attitude
01/02/01: Prosperity in perspective
12/28/00: Soft landing in a spoiled nation
12/26/00: When laws replace common sense
12/21/00: Beware the 'Bipartisanship'
12/18/00: ... A Brief Moment
12/13/00: Judicial activism on trial
12/11/00: Truth optional
12/06/00: A Chastened Court
12/01/00: Counting on some slippery language
11/28/00: Florida's rogue court
11/27/00: This willful court
11/22/00: Ferocity gap
11/17/00: Slow-motion larceny
11/13/00: Gore, Hungry for Power
11/09/00: No, the System Worked
11/06/00: The case for Bush
11/03/00: The Framers' Electoral wisdom
10/30/00: Political astronomy
10/27/00: Candidates condescending
10/23/00: No Partners For Peace
10/20/00: Talking peace with thugs
10/11/00: A feast of retreats
10/10/00: .. And what's gotten into the Danes?
10/05/00: The Agony of Debate
10/02/00: Senate Canvas
09/28/00: Milosevic: Not Another Saddam
09/25/00: Blaming the Voters
09/22/00: Saying No to the Euro
09/18/00: Farewell, Mr. Moynihan
09/14/00: When 'Choice' Rules
09/12/00: Colombia Illusions
09/08/00: Will He Spend It All?
09/04/00: Back in the U.S.S.R.
08/31/00: Stonewalling School Reform
08/28/00: Uphill for a California Republican
08/24/00: Sauerkraut Ice Cream
08/21/00: The Partial-Birth Censors
08/18/00: A Party to Prosperity
08/14/00: The National Scold on the Stump
08/10/00: The Thinking Person's Choice
08/07/00: The GOP of Powell And Rice
08/03/00: Panic in the Gore Camp
07/27/00: . . . Both Radical and Reassuring
07/06/00: Harry Potter: A Wizard's Return
07/03/00: Recalling the Revolution
06/29/00: An Act of Judicial Infamy
06/26/00: Life, Liberty and ... the Pursuit of Foxes
06/21/00: Fumble on Prayer
06/19/00: The unified field theory of culture
06/15/00: Schools Beset by Lawyers And Shrinks
06/12/00: Missile Defense Charade
06/07/00: The Grandparent Dissent
06/05/00: Liberal Condescension
06/01/00: Great Awakenings
05/30/00: Suddenly Social Security
05/25/00: Forget Values, Let's Talk Virtues
05/22/00: AlGore the Hysteric
05/15/00: Majestic Avenue
05/11/00: Just How Irrational Is the Exuberance?
05/08/00: Home-Run Glut
05/04/00: A Lesson Plan for Gore
05/01/00: The Hijacking of the Primaries
04/28/00: The Raid in Little Havana
04/24/00: Tinkering Again
04/17/00: A Judgment Against Hate
04/13/00: Tech- Stock Joy Ride
04/10/00: What the bobos are buying
04/06/00: A must-read horror book
04/03/00: 'Improving' the Bill of Rights
03/30/00: Sleaze, The Sequel
03/27/00: How new 'rights' will destroy freedom
03/23/00: Death and the Liveliest Writing
03/20/00: Powell is Dubyah's best bet
03/16/00: Free to Be Politically Intense
03/13/00: Runnin', Gunnin' and Gambling
03/09/00: And Now Back to Republican Business
03/06/00: As the Clock Runs Out on Bradley
03/02/00: Island of Equal Protection
02/28/00: . . . The Right Response
02/24/00: Federal Swelling
02/22/00: Greenspan Tweaks
02/17/00: Crucial Carolina (and Montana and . . .)
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02/10/00: The Disciplining of Austria
02/07/00: Free to Speak, Free to Give
02/02/00: Conservatives in a Changing Market
01/31/00: America's true unity day
01/27/00: For the Voter Who Can't Be Bothered
01/25/00: The FBI and the golden age of child pornography
01/20/00: Scruples and Science
01/18/00: Bradley: Better for What Ails Us
01/13/00: O'Brian Rules the Waves
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01/06/00: In Cactus Jack's Footsteps
01/03/00: The long year
12/31/99: A Stark Perspective On a Radical Century
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12/16/99: Star-Crossed Banner
12/13/99: Hubert Humphrey Wannabe
12/09/99: Stupidity in Seattle
12/06/99: Bradley's most important vote
12/03/99: Boys will be boys --- or you can always drug 'em
12/01/99: Confidence in the Gore Camp
11/29/99: Busing's End
11/22/99: When We Enjoyed Politics
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11/15/99: The Politics of Sanctimony
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11/08/99: Willie Brown Besieged
11/04/99: One-House Town
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10/28/99: Tax Break for the Yachting Class
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10/18/99: Is Free Speech Only for the Media?
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10/11/99: Money in Politics: Where's the Problem?
10/08/99: Soft Thinking On Soft Money

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