Rugged individualists til the moment things go wrong

June 19th, 2007
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This National Post story details a class action lawsuit by 20,000 cattle farmers over the federal government’s claimed mishandling of the incipient mad cow disease crisis back in the 90s. According to the plaintiffs, regulatory failures allowed infected cattle to be imported into Canada and become part of the food – and cattle feed – cycle.

Instinctively I’d be inclined towards sympathy for the farmers. The repercussions over fewer than a handful of BSE-infected Canadian cows cost the cattle industry billions in lost export revenues and created deep atavistic anxiety about Canadian beef in the minds of millions of consumers. It also cost taxpayers vast sums in stop-gap bailouts to cattle farmers and slaughterhouse operators. And there’s simple self-interest in my attitude – who wouldn’t worry about animals carrying a pathogen capable of delivering a hideous death unto unwitting human beefeaters?

Still, I can’t help wondering about the schizophrenic strain within the human psyche that allows people and groups to condemn government incompetence even as their reflexive response to nearly any problem is to demand more government regulation. At bottom, why did Canadian cattlemen rely on the government to protect them?

Numerous other industries are largely self-regulating, self-restraining and self-improving. Business sectors regularly develop new capabilities that, for example, enable them to control their supply chains down to tracking the locations of individual screwdrivers, bolts or 2X4s. There was no law or physical barrier stopping farm groups from figuring out a way to follow the progress of 500-bound bovines. Instead, they took a passive approach, the government apparently bungled its job, and now we’re down to haggling over who pays. Incidentally, a state-of-the-art tracking system was developed after the crisis.

Yet, despite the routine recurrence of government bungling – the Atlantic cod fishery, SARS, Air India, the gun registry – people continue to be surprised at each new instance. And to demand even more regulation.

A single scandal involving pet food, for example, triggers a chorus of journalistic indignation that the pet food “industry” isn’t already government-regulated, followed by demands for huge new government powers to oversee and direct an industry that, by and large, has operated with remarkable integrity because it is in its economic interests to do so.

Absent from the thinking of those demanding new government powers is the fact that this “scandal” originated due to deliberate fraud in a notoriously corrupt and ill-governed foreign country. Does anybody really think that a new federal agency dedicated to regulating pet food, staffed by a few well-intentioned but typically diffident and virtually powerless Canadian bureaucrats, would succeed in imposing Canadian standards upon China’s ruthless business operators?

The default mental process seems to be as follows: government-created problem – increase government regulation; industry-created problem – increase government regulation. As others have commented, applying the same methods and expecting different results is a working definition of insanity.

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