The reactionary impulse
This clever rejoinder by M. Nolan Gray triggered several different thoughts:
1. Let’s start with the most boring consideration—is it true?
Gray is not saying that regulation is the only factor boosting home size. As countries get richer, the public will generally choose to consume more luxurious homes. But regulation has tended to artificially increase housing costs. Many suburbs have minimum lot sizes, bans on accessory dwelling units, and rules making it much more difficult to build budget multifamily housing. The sort of small ranch houses built in Levittown during the 1950s have been outlawed in many places, and it’s much harder to get approval for the construction of apartment buildings.
2. The initial tweet by Collins reminds me of my own reactionary impulses. Now that I’m over 65, I find myself reflexively having this sort of reaction to all sorts of societal trends. “What, they closed Madison schools because of a snowstorm, or below zero temps? We had to trudge through deep snow to get to school back in the 1960s. Back then, they never closed school because of snow or cold.” I often have that sort of thought.
In other cases, the reactionary impulse suggests that things were easier in the past. “We were much freer before all these government regulations.” Or “A man used to be able to support his family without the wife having to work.” People often overlook all the people that weren’t freer back in 1900 (blacks, gays, and women voters.) Or they overlook the fact that (apart from a few areas like coastal California) a man can still support an entire family, if willing to live at a 1960 standard of living.
3. This tweet is also a good example of how we tend to overlook the underlying cause of many social problems. I’d estimate that more than 90% of the time when someone complains to me about being mistreated by a company, it’s clear to me that the underlying problem is some form of dysfunctional government regulation. Indeed much of my interaction with the companies I most dislike (auto dealers, lawyers, insurance companies, etc.) occurs only because of regulation. In other cases, (such as airlines and healthcare), the business is heavily distorted by regulation.
I presume that people who are NIMBYs don’t see themselves as causing young people to be unable to buy a house. Those who oppose kidney markets probably don’t see themselves as the cause of a friend or relative dying of kidney disease. Those who favor the War on Drugs probably don’t see themselves as the cause of high murder rates in Mexico. Those who support spending more on various government programs probably don’t see themselves as the cause of big budget deficits (or higher taxes.)
4. Gray’s tweet also makes me reflect on how people with different levels of talent interact with each other on social media. One of the pleasures of following a talented tweeter like Matt Yglesias or Razib Khan is watching them pull this sort of judo move on an overconfident upstart that is in way over their head. If done with a sense of humor, it can be quite amusing. It’s not my forte, however, which is why I stick to blogging.