Trump Allows Pernicious Obama-Era Mandate For Backup Cameras on All New Cars

P. Gardner Goldsmith | May 15, 2018
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Supporters of the President might feel uncomfortable reading about it, but, as with his campaign rhetoric to reduce U.S. interventionism and stop the attempt to overthrow the government of Syria, President Trump has folded on another important issue -- this time, one that pertains to economics and the Constitution.

This month, he allowed to become “law” the Obama-proposed mandates that all new cars, SUVs, and light trucks must include backup cameras.

The word “law” is in quotes for three reasons. First, this is a bureaucratic mandate from the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA started by our old pal Richard Nixon in 1970), based on a law passed by Congress in 2008.

Second, even if Congress passed the statute, it’s not constitutional. Congress does not have any enumerated power to control transportation, highways, or mandate how vehicles will be built, bought, or sold.

Third, a statute is not “law” on philosophical grounds, and this goes back to the ancient Common Law distinction between statute – edicts from agents of the state – and Natural Law, which is the observable set of interpersonal rules people create due to their nature. Some, like John Locke and Frederic Bastiat, believed these rules, which were based on Natural Law, were granted to people by God. Others, like Emmanuel Kant, argued that these societal rules are observable and supportable through logical thought about negative reciprocity: the idea that you have a right to be left alone by me and I have a right to be left alone by you. As a result, statute and “law” are actually different things. Statute invades our rights. Natural Law describes them.

What does this political-philosophical analysis have to do with the practical view of an expensive mandate being placed on auto manufacturers, sellers, and buyers in the 21st Century?

Well, it stands to reason that I cannot tell you how to peacefully offer something to someone else. Doing so is an act of aggression.

And if I cannot do that to you on my own, it is no more valid for me to gather a gang of people – be they bureaucrats at the NHTSA, or members of Congress – to do so.

Hence, even if the Constitution allowed this, it would not be ethical according to real law – Natural Law.

And when these kinds of infringements of rights occur, there is an immediate, often unseen, decrease in economic utility. The reason? Utility is subjectively determined. As with other ethical precepts, one cannot adopt the conceit of telling another how he values his time, money, other property, or life. The moral connects with the economic. So telling carmakers how to make the cars, sellers what they can sell, and buyers what they can buy takes away their rights and opportunities to decide what gives them the greatest utility, thus destroying economic calculation.

Again, this might appear to be heady stuff more suited to a college classroom – if colleges bothered to focus on this instead of “social justice” nonsense – but it has real-world implications.

The mandate will cost billions of dollars over the years. Billions that might have been spent on cars with backup cams, or might have been spent on other things the consumers preferred – things that might have made them safer in other areas, such as the buying of medicine, or even simple things like sunscreen, or new snow tires for the winter.

By forcing this mandate on people, the government forces collective decisions to push away the subjective valuation of each person. The argument that 200 people per year are killed by backup accidents gets the attention, while all the other things people might have chosen to do with their money – which, themselves could save numerous lives – are lost.

Certainly, cars could be made even safer. They could be made to only travel five miles per hour. They could be made to never back up. They could be made with giant bubbles around them. But consumers make decisions about the tradeoff between safety and other factors, like price and utility. As ethical people, and as people who might support better economics, we must allow our neighbors to make those decisions for themselves.

Many folks wonder why small children are mandated by government to sit in the back of cars. The reason is that this, itself, is a response to a 1991 federal government mandate that forced auto manufacturers to install airbags in their cars. Consumers didn’t get to choose. And numerous children sitting in the passenger seats were subsequently killed in slow-speed crashes. Not by the crashes, but by the airbags.

So we got another mandate to try to solve the problem created by the first mandate. And those lives will be gone forever.

This kind of thing is pernicious, and last year, Donald Trump said he was rethinking the backup camera mandate.

It’s come to nothing. Nothing but more expenses, fewer opportunities to choose, and a reinforcement of the idea that Congress can tell people how to make, sell, or buy things.

As James Madison said upon reviewing his notes on the Constitutional Convention, the argument politicians offer when imposing these kinds of mandates – that these products are sold over state borders, and the Interstate Commerce Clause can be used to “regulate them” – is spurious. Noted by Edmund Contoski in his book “Makers and Takers”, Madison explained that the Interstate Commerce clause was not supposed to be used “for positive purposes”, but only as “a negative and preventative provision against injustice among the states themselves.”

We can see where the injustice occurs most often, and by whom.

These federal mandates are neither constitutionally warranted, nor are they ethical.

But don’t expect most DC politicians – or even someone admired by many conservatives – to stop them.

(Cover Photo: Jeff Wilcox)

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