Monday, October 22, 2007

The Internet, Nanotech, and the Obsolescence of Government


Perhaps one of the most important- and legitimate- functions of government is as a sort of clearing-house for information sharing. For instance, government can claim a proper role in regulating lead content in paint not so much because one or two extra parts per million will automatically mean a catastrophic risk to children, but because citizens lack the ability to be all-knowing about the safety of everything that comes into their lives. Unfortunately, with many things, a customer can only find out the hard way that a product is unsafe. Similarly, government can claim a proper role in prohibiting or regulating drug use on the grounds that, by banning a product and enforcing that ban, it is preventing people from using unsafe products that may seem safe at first and are highly addictive (of course, the drugs chosen for this prohibition and regulation are completely arbitrary, but that's besides the point). In other words, the status that government gives to a product, person or action is intended to let the public know that the product, person or action is good or bad.

Libertarians are fond of pointing out that these functions can be performed just as well- indeed, even better - by private industry, like Consumer Reports. Unfortunately, this argument has been impractical- the costs of obtaining this type of information have historically been extremely high, particularly in terms of time required to research a product, person, or action.

So government regulation of some things that present legitimate hazards is perhaps legitimate. The problem, of course, is that few products, persons, or actions are bad for everyone, just as few are actually good for everyone. So, while the government policy may have a good intent (for instance, preventing people from becoming drug-addled criminals), it often has very arbitrary results as applied (locking up people whose casual use of "illegal" drugs causes no external harms). Indeed, government's decision to regulate something is almost never the result of a finding that something is 100% evil or good for 100% of the people, but is instead based on a finding of what does the most good for the group that is most politically powerful on an issue at a given time.

The internet, however, has the power to combine the best of the personal choice/well-informed consumer ideal of the Consumer Reports-type industry with the relatively lower opportunity costs (to the individual consumer/taxpayer) of government regulation. With the continued development of portable nanotechnology that can be brought anywhere, and the unlimited potential of the internet in terms of making information available, the need for government one-size-fits-all rules is decreasing. In other words, portable nanotechnology with access to the internet presents an opportunity for individuals to have almost zero cost (both opportunity and actual) in obtaining information about a purchase or action. Near-immediate access to this information will allow them to better decide for themselves whether their intended purchase or action makes sense for them specifically.

Under this scenario- which will certainly take many years to reach its full potential- the immediate access to information will obviate the need for government to impose an absolute barrier for or against the subject products or actions. To put it all another way: government action is unnecessary where all individuals have a zero or near zero-cost opportunity to learn for themselves whether something is right or wrong for them. Nanny-statism, to a large degree, loses much of its rationale.