The loss of freedom in enforcing new rules for food stamps

February 5

Under the new proposed farm bill:

USDA will need to ensure that illegal immigrants, lottery winners, college students and the dead cannot receive food stamps and that people cannot collect benefits in multiple states.

I’m sure that some of those exclusions (lottery winners, the dead) will seem unobjectionable to many readers, and the others (college students, illegal immigrants) will seem unobjectionable to a smaller subset of readers. However, in an insightful post, Jacob Levy argues that freedom-loving people should be skeptical of the new exclusions — even if they are hostile to food stamps in the first place:

A lot of people a lot of the time underestimate how burdensome, onerous, and intrusive complicated bureaucratic rules and regulations are. . . .

I think this is a case in which our biases between groups we like and groups we don’t is especially strong. We are mainly honest competent adults trying our best to do what we’re supposed to do, and they keep getting in our way with these insulting burdensome rules; they don’t take seriously the cost to our time and energy of having to prove compliance constantly, both by paperwork and by subordination to the administrative officials who monitor all of us in order to detect wrongdoing by a tiny few. You are basically suspect characters to begin with, and if we let you get away with it you’d all be running wild, and the other ways you were going to spend your time we don’t really like anyways, and we’re dubious enough about you that monitoring you closely is a good idea anyway even if some of you aren’t technically violating the rules, and the moral cost of even one of you getting away with this terrible thing is so great that we simply have to prevent it, and anyway what are you complaining about, if you obey the rules like you supposed to, there’s no harm to you. . . .

And so poor people will be subjected to another set of forms, another set of inspections, another set of surveillance and monitoring, another set of insults, another risk of false findings of guilt, for trivial financial savings. Someone gets to posture as having zero tolerance for some unacceptable outcome; that’s what the zero tolerance policies are for. And life for a sixth of the country’s population gets worse, more unfree, more subject to the burdens and intrusions of micromanaging regulation.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

Levy also observes that this is another good reason for Milton Friedman’s proposal that we replace our ad hoc poverty programs with a “negative income tax,” which would just give the poor money (using our existing bureaucratic apparatus) and let them to decide what to do with it.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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Ilya Somin | February 5