Penn and Teller had an interesting episode debunking the Americans With Disabilities Act and related regulations. But even a Non-Bleeding Heart Libertarian like myself spent most of the episode furrowing his brow in puzzlement. Penn and Teller appeared to be arguing that even things like mandatory handicapped parking somehow backfire and wind up hurting the handicapped.

The episode had its moments. Penn and Teller made the perfectly sensible argument that regulations allowing the handicapped to sue employers make it harder for the handicapped to find jobs in the first place. I’ve made analogous arguments hundreds of time. I’m sold.

But P&T go much further. They don’t claim that handicapped parking regs make it harder for the handicapped to park. Instead, they seem to argue that using regulation to make life easier for the handicapped stops them from helping themselves, robbing them of the drive to overcome their disabilities.

I’m open to this argument on a theoretical level. Welfare does lead the poor down a self-destructive path by making life too easy in the short-term. However, in practice, it seems ludicrous to extend this argument to the severely handicapped. No matter how many regulations we have, it’s never going to be easy to live in a wheelchair. There will always be adversity to struggle against, no matter how accessible buildings become.

The bottom line: While a sub-set of disability regs (primarily employment-related) probably do have perverse effects, most of these regs do help the handicapped. The main economic argument against them is not that they “hurt the very people they were designed to help,” but that the cost is high and the benefits are small. Handicapped parking regulations are good for the handicapped, but they also mean that, wherever you go, the best parking is almost always at least half-empty. Wheelchair accessibility regs require every business to spend a bundle to accomodate a handful of disabled patrons. It’s a lot more efficient to have a few businesses specialize in serving the handicapped. And so on.

It’s not a comfortable argument to make, but at least it’s true.