January 18, 2011
On negative externalities c. 1911

From a letter to the editor of the Jan. 18, 1911 NYT:

I was pleased to see the article in your columns the other day in reference to the proposed law regulating the length of hatpins. There is no question in my mind as to the need for such a law, for thousands are daily in danger of serious damage to their eyesight, face, or hands by protruding hatpins. Women should be considerate enough to either protect the points or wear shorter pins.
I might add they could wear higher heels to promote the hat and accompanying hat pins above the heads of their fellow citizens. The letter goes on:
Many are, but for those who are not, a law is necessary, and it should be enacted without delay.
{sarcasm}The letter writer does not suggest at what point in the distribution of hat-pins the regulation should be enforced. One would suspect that hat-pin manufacturers would be required to limit the length of the hat pin, but would this not then require hat manufacturers to change hats to accommodate the reduced length, and would this forced change in hat design impart potentially catastrophic damage to the social welfare of hat wearers and admirers alike?

While requiring new hat-pins to meet new safety standards might address the letter-writer's concerns for future hat-pin encounters, the letter writer does not address what society should do with what might have been millions of hat-pins that were already distributed around the city, state and country. Whether the government should seize the hatpins, a la gold in the 1930s, or offer hat-pin buy-back programs, a la guns-off-the-streets programs of today, is not clear. It would seem rather inefficient to police the length of hat-pins at the individual hat-wearer level, but then a bureau of hat-pin enforcement would likely provide a nice set of patronage jobs. {\sarcasm}

On the one hand such regulation seems to address a negative externality, but in my mind might add a negative externality - that is, the government and the citizenry start to expect and accept such regulations which ultimate erode personal liberty to the quick. The modern day equivalents of limiting light-bulb wattage, limiting access to Vitamin C supplements, and questioning whether lawn darts are a good gift for six year olds, seem to be a continuance of the demand expressed by the letter writer.

Except for the liberty-restricting nature of such regulations, one wonders if it it is perhaps better for the legislature to spend their limited time on regulations such as this rather than bigger ideas that often seem to be accompanied by even bigger attacks on personal liberty.

Posted by Craig Depken at 03:36 PM in Economics

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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