George Will: Tilting at Windmills

The only instance of “overreach” by anyone found in this story is not government’s but the renowned columnist’s efforts to use this as an example to belittle government regulation.

Nothing weakens your case more against too much government oversight when your defense is some isolated incident in a predominantly conservative, pro-business state.  But triviality and lack of focus never stopped the anti-government crowd as George Will demonstrates to us in his recent column.

Cindy Vong is a tiny woman with a problem as big as the government that is causing it. She wants to provide a service that will enable customers “to brighten up their days.” Having fish nibble your feet may not be your idea of fun, but lots of people around the world enjoy it, and so did some Arizonans until their bossy government butted in, in the service of a cartel. Herewith a story that illustrates how governments that will not mind their own business impede the flourishing of businesses.

Vong, 47, left Vietnam in 1982, and after stops in Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, settled in San Francisco and lived there for 20 years before coming here to open a nail salon with a difference. Her salon offered $30 fish therapy, wherein small fish from China nibble dead skin from people’s feet. Arizona’s Board of Cosmetology decided the fish were performing pedicures, and because all pedicure instruments must be sterilized and fish cannot be, the therapy must be discontinued. Vong lost her more-than-$50,000 investment in fish tanks and other equipment, and some customers. Three of her employees lost their jobs.   SOURCE 

Garra rufa and chin chin fish nibble at the skin on customer’s foot during a spa fish treatment at LaVie Nails & Spa

Mr. Will’s premise here is sound and I agree with it that the principle that opposes monopolies “is imbedded in our constitutional system [and that] that there are certain essentials of liberty with which the state is not entitled to dispense. . . .”  Here, here.  But why George Will then proceeds to lay this before the historical record whereby “after 1932, New Deal progressivism washed over the courts” he leads us to believe that not only was the federal government “derelict regarding their duty to protect economic liberty” back then but that this case with Cindy Vong is an example of that New Deal progressivism carried through today.

It perhaps needs to be stated for the record that the New Deal progressivism Will alludes to was the direct result of unregulated markets exploiting capital and investments to their benefit and taking risks that wound up going too far and pushed this country into it greatest economic depression ever.  Measures were taken by the Roosevelt administration to set limits on companies that failed to set reasonable limits for themselves and these regulations have prevented a similar disastrous depression ever since.

However, since the Reagan administration, those and every other form of government oversight have been removed or white washed so badly to make them ineffective and those that still had some bite to them were often nullified by agency heads appointed by Republican presidents who put the word out to agency staff NOT to be energetic in their enforcement of codes and laws that they felt would hurt the “economic liberty” of big business.  This was code for doing nothing that inhibits corporate profits

But back to George Will’s defense of Cindy Vong and the so-called intrusive government agency.   Arizona’s Board of Cosmetology barred Ms. Vong from using imported Garra Rufa fish from China to nibble away the dead skin of her customer’s feet who soaked them in the special tanks she had provided for this “special therapy”.  According to its website the Arizona Board of Cosmetology members “are appointed by the Governor for three-year terms.”  Six of the last seven appointees to this board have been appointed by the current Republican Governor, Jan Brewer.   This hardly represents a group of people who would be influenced by New Deal progressivism.

It should also be noted, as Will does, that though some government guidelines for businesses like the “certificate of necessity” (CON) laws, can be stifling, two things have to be kept in mind.  First, in complex systems some rules may step on the toes of others that suffer rather than gain from the guidelines.  Actions to correct this situation can and should be taken but to suggest that this is the norm rather than the exception is hardly valid.  Secondly, the belief that such restrictions imposed by government regulations are the creation of Progressives is, in today’s political climate, ludicrous.

Though Progressives have numerous grass-roots organizations in place to combat what they feel are unfair laws and regulations they are all transparent organizations and in no way exists as does the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC);  a “corporate-funded organization that puts global corporations and [conservative] state politicians together to vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights.”  In fact what’s going on with Ms. Vong’s issue concerning the use of special fish appears to be similar to what many of the ALEC model laws push for – laws that inhibit efforts by common people and small businesses to not only curtail the current practices of an industry that may have detrimental outcomes to citizens but discourage competition from new entrepreneurs.

People like George Will though are too often less concerned about individual liberties than they are with what he refers to as economic liberties.  Economic liberties are essential for our economy but not all business practices should be viewed as economic liberties. Those that serve to sustain profits while posing a threat to our health and safety are paraded around as economic liberties by some who claim they are being threatened by government intrusion.  Upon close scrutiny however it is the government doing what it was designed to do to protect it’s citizens.

The most glaring example of this is the current effort of the EPA to regulate the hazardous emissions of coal-fired power plants.  The George Wills of this country would have you believe that the toxic emissions of mercury and other elements that cause lung diseases are similar to the seemingly harmless small fish Ms. Vong wishes to use in her new business.  By restricting the power plants from freely exercising their rights to emit toxic elements into our air and water, those who support this nasty practice would point out the effect this would have on energy companies profits and on our own energy costs that show up on monthly utility bills.

What they don’t convey though are the higher costs many of us will pay in the form of health care costs to deal with the effects on our lungs or the economic impacts where animal and plant life that serve as food supplies are diminished.  Nor do they inform citizens that coal is a finite fossil fuel that will most likely be used up by end of this century and its cost will increase as it becomes harder to find and tougher to extract.

If Ms. Vong’s business were the only issue George Will was raising here I would have no beef with his comments and it would clearly be a Quixotesque gesture on his part.  But knowing how George will works, this incident with the Vietnamese salon owner is symbolic of what he has come to see as government overreach; a condition that apparently only occurs when the government is trying to help prevent businesses from doing things that could actually harm many people.

Based on the key facts presented by the Goldwater Institute who is representing Ms. Vong,  it appears that her use of Garra Rufa or “doctor fish” pose no serious health risk to her customers, yet George Will should not be using this particular incident to attack “government overreach”.  The fact that it was a conservative state government apparently working within the framework of the existing law that confronts this issue in no way resembles earlier Progressive reforms that were necessary to curb the excesses of corporate malfeasance.  It’s dishonest and disingenuous and makes this otherwise intelligent columnist look much like the foolish red-meat bloggers and media pundits that will say and do anything to create fear and suspicion among voters.

8 responses to “George Will: Tilting at Windmills

  1. I used to at least respect George Will but he has lost his “sanity” I fear. How funny that he picked on Arizona Board of Cosmetology without researching who put them into their appointments. I do believe George is slacking. Excellent post Larry.

  2. I, too, used to believe that George Will was a thoughtful writer. There is nothing more annoying, and less credible, than citing one minor incident and then indicting an entire group or system with one broad brush. There are examples of government over-reach – let’s work within the system to change the law. There are many examples in which regulations have sound reasons behind them. And in too many cases “economic liberties” have created hazardous and negative consequences – like allowing child labor too exist.

    Very good post, lb – one of many.

    • Thanks Jean. I honestly think Will has lost the capacity to be even handed in his criticism of his political adversaries and has allowed himself to be caught up in this tea party madness.

      • Will can NEVER be a Buckley….he tries but he just does not have the passion nor the intelligence to be a good spokesman for conservatism…..

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