Stupid Laws and Unintended Consequences

The scourge of progressivism is always on display, but sometimes the sheer stupidity of its arguments goes to eleven.

Behold the progressive left’s comprehensive rebuke of Rand Paul’s recent argument that cigarette taxes and the black markets which consequently ensue are partly responsible for Eric Garner’s death. Because racial division benefits the Democratic Party politically, there exists a profound desire on the left to sustain such a beneficial narrative for as long as possible when afforded the opportunity. Conversely, an even stronger desire to prohibit the narrative from being hijacked by other focal points manifests whenever someone challenges the established left wing conventional wisdom.

On MSNBC’s Hardball, Rand Paul offered this completely reasonable opinion on Eric Garner’s tragic death:

I think it is hard not to watch that video of him saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’ and not be horrified by it. I think it is important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes so that driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct the police say, ‘hey we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.’ For someone to die over breaking that law, there is really no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws.

The last thing the left wants is their racial injustice narrative derailed by concerns over taxes or big government (which is not unlike radical feminists’ desire that the agenda outweigh the truth). Hence the surreal spectacle of countless left wing pundits levying passionate rebukes of Paul and the broader right who picked up on his critique. Jon Stewart made the splashiest headlines with his “What the fu*k are you talking about?” zinger on The Daily Show.

Joan Walsh weighed in to pronounce Paul’s 2016 hopes “wrecked,” while Gawker, Vox, Rachel Maddow’s stenographer Steve Benen, and Jeffrey Toobin all joined the chorus condemning Paul for his comments.

Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others on the right responded to the left’s claims with justified scorn. There are some lines of attack that go unanswered because they are not worth responding to, such as charges that Republicans wish to “throw grandma off the cliff” (by reforming Medicare) or wishes to “see kids starving in the streets” (by cutting food stamps). But then there are some arguments belched out of the left’s hive mind that demand swift correction and incessant mockery. The argument that taxes had nothing to do with the Eric Garner tragedy is just plain stupid.

With the opposite of all due respect for Jon Stewart, let me explain just “what the fu*k” Rand Paul and everyone else with a brain is talking about. New York progressives believe that nothing is immune from their regulatory reach, especially those activities which they define as bad. Smoking is indisputably bad for individual health, ergo there must be government restrictions on access to this legal product. That constitutes the “seen” whereas all the unintended consequences that go into enforcing these laws constitute what is “unseen.” By and large, the right knows at least that the unseen exists as a real phenomenon that must be accounted for in public policy, while the left treats the unseen at best as an abstraction and at worst as a sort of urban legend, a myth invented by unsophisticated rubes who can’t quite wrap their puny minds around the need for government to operate as independent arbitrator.

The unseen in the matter of Eric Garner is the human response to incentives. Had there been no six dollar surtax on cigarettes, there would have been no need for the emergence of a massive smuggling racket, whereby trucks would smuggle cigarettes up from the South by the half million. Contrary to popular liberal mythology, human nature is not malleable and thus not prone to radical shifts in personal behavior just because the authorities believe that passing a law equals solving a problem.

Who smokes cigarettes? It’s not coastal elites or academia’s assembly-line activists, that’s for sure. It’s middle American whites and inner city minorities. It’s nice and noble that nannies wish for them to quit, but you know what is not nice and noble? Making packs in New York City and Chicago $14. You think by magic all these smokers are going to magically and radically change their behavior? No, they’re going to look for cheaper avenues to acquire smokes. Progressive do-gooderism and a failure to understand market dynamics, incentives and human behavior leads them to passing these sorts of taxes and levies on the poor in all of our big cities. And the left gets mad when the people don’t comply with their central plans, so they create a strike force (as Cuomo did) to crack down on those nefarious criminals who dare to sell “loosies” outside of the jurisdiction’s onerous taxes.

Progressives want everything to be about social justice and race, and nothing to be about economics or the perverse incentives created by well-intentioned government programs. Both things can be true: Eric Garner was a victim of excessive force by above-the-law police and he was also the victim of the tragic unintended consequences that often arise when black markets emerge in response to bad policy. This is not complicated, but judging by the left’s reaction, I guess it is.

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