Libertarian Jim Lark discusses safety regulations

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October 3, 2008

1:54 AM

Last night former National Chairman of the Libertarian Party Jim Lark presented an on-campus lecture to the Libertarian Students entitled “Warning: Governmentally-Mandated Safety Regulations May be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Lark, currently the campus coordinator of the Libertarian Party, believes that government regulations may cause more harm than good.

“It’s not so much I’m going to try to persuade you of a particular point of view, but more I’m going to try to give you a particular way of thinking about problems and how we might evaluate important issues dealing with the matter of risk in a nominally free society,” he told the group.

Lark, also a professor of systems engineering at the University of Virginia, bases his method on what he calls the law of unintended consequences.

“To sum it up, when you take decisions, particularly when you are dealing with very complicated sets of interactions, the consequences may be extremely hard to predict and the most serious consequences may be hurting those it intends to help,” he said.

As an example, Lark asked the audience to imagine a situation in which a government mandate required all vehicle manufacturers to install a safety feature requiring seat belts in cars to be buckled before it could be put into drive.

“If, behind the wheel of a car, you feel safer and more secure when you’re wearing your belt, and if that manifests in slightly more aggressive behavior behind the wheel, and if you aggregate that literally over millions of drivers, millions of miles, it is possible — in fact, I think you can make an at least decent back-of-the-envelope calculation — that now you may actually have more fatalities rather than fewer, because now when the accidents occur, perhaps they occur under more dangerous circumstances: higher speeds,” Lark said.

Lark also gave an example in which the government hypothetically requires airlines to install expensive safety devices on all planes. In this case, according to Lark, in order to not decrease spending on other safety features such as maintenance, airlines would have to increase ticket prices.

“Let us say that the price of the tickets increase to the point where we see large numbers of people shifting their mode of transportation from air travel to, say, private vehicle travel,” Lark said. “Which mode of transportation is the safer mode of transportation? Air travel is safer.”

“If, by virtue of mandating a certain type of technology, if the cost structure that people face when they make their decisions gets shifted so that they shift from maybe a more safe technology to a less safe technology, what may happen is that you actually have more people being killed, even though the technology is a better technology,” he said.

Lark also explored the possibility of unintended consequences in the federal Food and Drug Administration.

“They try to keep unsafe medicines, unsafe devices, unsafe procedures away from the American people, an agency that I think was started with the best of intentions,” he said. “However, there are various scholars who have made the argument that the FDA has probably killed vastly more people than they have saved. And you think, why?

“By the way, if you ask me if I know what the answer is, the answer is no, principally because I am not a scholar in the area. That is not my major area of scholarship. But one can make an argument that precisely because the FDA is trying to protect people, it very well may keep beneficial substances, devices and procedures off the market.”

Lark ended his talk with advice for his audience.

“So, if you ever get stuck in a situation where you have a question before you — ‘Should we regulate something?’ — be very careful, because you may, despite your best intentions, you may actually make life more dangerous for people rather than less,” he said.

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