Working for a better economy, better governance and a better society

To borrow from Tolstoy’s famous quote about families, good laws are often alike, but bad laws are bad in their own way.

This comes to mind because in July I attended FreedomFest 2019 in Las Vegas, where I participated in a panel discussion on the “dirty dozen” of federal laws, moderated by popular television journalist John Stossel.

Such laws cost billions of dollars, typically benefiting a few at the expense of the many, and just make life harder for the average American. These are laws that eat away at our liberties.

Because I was there to represent Hawaii, I focused on measures that we in the Aloha State have had the most experience with. That’s why I started with the way the federal government enables large, wasteful transportation boondoggles through the promise of federal grants.

We all know about the Honolulu rail and its cost overruns. But there are many other transportation projects around the country that have burned through taxpayer dollars in similar fashion. Earlier this year, California canceled a high-speed rail project that had more than doubled its $33 billion budget. Then there are projects like Boston’s 17-year “Big Dig” or Alaska’s famous “Road to Nowhere.”

As I explained, the federal government needs to stop dangling money over the heads of ambitious politicians. Instead, it should approach big transportation projects with skepticism, especially when there are new technologies on the horizon or private options that would be more effective.

Next I focused on the U.S. sugar program, a collection of regulations such as price guarantees, quotas and tariffs meant to protect the U.S. sugar industry. The result is that American sugar costs twice as much as sugar from overseas. A fellow panelist pointed out that one unintended consequence of the higher sugar prices was that people starting the less-expensive high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener instead, which has been disastrous to public health and probably cost the government tens of billions of dollars more in public health spending.

Ironically, sugarcane growers in Hawaii claimed for years that they needed the sugar program to survive, but ultimately it didn’t save sugar in our state. Meanwhile, we continue to pay more for sugar.

Of course, no discussion of archaic protectionist laws would be complete without a mention of the Jones Act. In Hawaii, we understand that our cost of living is higher because all cargo carried between U.S. ports must be on ships owned, flagged and built in the United States and mostly crewed by Americans.

I shared the story of local ranchers who have to fly their cattle to the mainland because shipping is so expensive. But I also mentioned examples affecting mainland residents, such as New Englanders who find it cheaper to import fuel from abroad than by ship from Texas.

To mitigate these absurdities, I recommended updating the Jones Act for the 21st century, specifically by allowing our transportation companies to do what our military is allowed to do: Buy ships from our allies, who build them for a fraction of the U.S. cost.

Finally I talked about the common thread that runs through many of the “dirty dozen”: the intrusion of the federal government into matters that should be left to the states or the people. Whether it’s meddling in the marketplace or persuading municipalities to commit to costly boondoggles, a lack of federal government restraint leads to bad laws.

Unfortunately, we’re the ones who pay, whether in higher taxes, higher prices or the loss of liberty. That’s why we should always look with skepticism at laws that erode federalism. The last thing we need is more candidates for the Dirty Dozen.

Oh, and what other laws rounded out the list?

As summarized by Stossel, they were “the FDA banning trying things,” the Endangered Species Act, the Antiquities Act, controlled substance laws, the “safe harbor” exemption from anti-kickback laws, the Dodd-Frank Act, civil asset forfeiture, and Congress delegating its authority to regulatory agencies.

You can view the entire panel discussion here.