Why Fact-Checking Is Important
…Even for a blogger. This morning I linked to a story suggesting that the EPA is running a contest to celebrate the wonders of the regulatory state. The EPA is in fact running a contest to promote the regulatory process, as the page I linked makes clear. However, as commenter greginak pointed out, this is not the same as promoting or celebrating the concept of federal regulations. Whether you think we’re over-regulated or under-regulated, the fact is that there is nothing controversial about the notion that regulations are “important.”
The reason I claimed that the EPA’s contest was intended as a celebration of the regulatory state rather than merely as an informational campaign about the impact of the regulatory state was a quote that I incorrectly attributed to the EPA itself stating that “The contest, which ends May 17, will award $2,500 to the makers of the video that best explains why federal regulations are good and how ordinary citizens can become more involved in making regulations.” (My emphasis). Unfortunately, it turns out that if I had traced this quote, I would have discovered that its original source is an article from the oh-so-reliable CNSNews.com folks, who simply seem to have had no basis whatsoever for the assertion that entries are to be judged based on their explanation of “why federal regulations are good.”
There’s a huge difference between an administrative equivalent of the School House Rock segment “I’m Just a Bill” and outright propaganda. This contest falls in the former category, not the latter. To be sure, the EPA-sponsored contest may well have the effect of encouraging support for regulation, but that is a far cry from saying that the contest’s primary purpose is to engage in a government-sponsored celebration of the awesomeness that is regulation. Indeed, the statement about regulatory price controls and control of news programming to which I objected in the press release is perfectly understandable if read in the context of a contest intended to explain why people should participate in the regulatory process. In fact, I can’t think of many examples that the EPA could have used that would have been more appropriate for such a task – people should participate in the regulatory process and be aware of why it matters precisely because of the awesome power of regulation in our daily lives. From a libertarian standpoint, participation in the regulatory process is thus a particularly important thing because such participation represents an important way to “stand athwart history yelling ‘STOP'”!
So, mea culpa and my apologies to anyone I may have misled.
UPDATE: Over at Popehat, Patrick and Ken argue that whatever the stated purpose of the contest, the pro-regulation bias of the contest is implicit, particularly considering the judges. I think this is certainly true, but it doesn’t bother me very much, at least not compared to plenty of pre-existing programs. My explanation, also left as a comment at Popehat is as follows:
No doubt that the judges are going to have a pro-regulation bias in practice. And also no doubt that an anti-regulation video would have no real chance. And also no doubt that even an apolitical video that hypothetically won would have the effect of encouraging regulation.
However, the official aim of the contest (ie, educating people about the regulatory process to encourage their participation) is an entirely legitimate one, at least if you accept the notion that it is a legitimate function of government to promote democratic participation more generally (I don’t, but it’s way down the list of illegitimate government marketing campaigns that bother me). Accepting that notion, I don’t really see much other way to run such a contest than under the rules that they’ve set up.
Frankly, while there may be a strong inherent pro-regulation bias in the judging of this, the fact is that an anti-regulation video – at least if it made anti-regulation its primary point – would be inherently non-germane to even the officially stated goals of the contest, and would thus deserve not to win. Similarly, a video that goes out of its way to sell the beauty of regulation would also be inherently non-germane to the officially stated goals of the contest, especially given the brief 90-second limitation on the entries. (By contrast, a video that did this only subtly would probably qualify as well).
Now, if the winner of the contest winds up being an entry that does little explaining of the process and lots of celebration of the awesomeness that is regulation, then I’ll have to retract my retraction. But if it just winds up being an entry that just explains, say, notice and comment, and what that process does, and that citizens should try to get engaged in the process….I don’t see much that is uniquely problematic about that.
Now, whether government should be in a position where it is subjectively and explicitly judging the content of speech for whatever reason in the first place is another story altogether. But that ship’s sailed, unfortunately and I’m about 1000 times more comfortable with a contest like this than I am with the Office of Drug Control Policy soliciting pro-War on Drugs commercials from its “partners” in the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.