Thom Tillis Steps In It

A few lines on the ubiquity of microbes
Centers for Disease Control

Most of the reaction to Thom Tillis’ now-infamous commentary on government-mandated hand-washing at restaurants has been of the “what the hell?” or “ew” varieties, garnished with the obligatory right-wing blog post arguing that the new U.S. Senator from North Carolina was actually making a brilliant point that stupid liberals are stupidly too stupid to comprehend.

But let’s get something clear here. Tillis was not saying he’d be fine with restaurant employees not washing their hands.

He was saying that consumer choice and the faultless machinations of the free market would be better hedges against the spread of disease—better hedges against, really, anything bad—than government regulation, which is the absolute evil.

And that, in its own way, is even worse.

Let’s unpack—with latex gloves I’m requiring you to wear, because I am a tyrant—just what Tillis is arguing.

Bring it down to ground level. You’re at a Starbucks, which is where the conversation Tillis referred to on C-SPAN took place. Say there’s no Health Department requirement that employees wash their hands. Tillis would be fine with that as long as the Starbucks posted a sign announcing that fact. Then consumers would be free to choose whether to risk contracting botulism from a tainted cup, or having a barista smear a bit of E. coli on a blueberry scone.

Word would spread along with the microbes—either that, or consumers would know that the baristas weren’t washing their hands and avoid the Starbucks entirely, choosing instead the Starbucks across the street that has solidified its competitive advantage by enforcing a hand-washing rule itself. Gross Starbucks goes out of business. Safe Starbucks profits. Hooray, free market.

This assumes, of course, that the Gross Starbucks complies with whatever regulation is forcing it to post the signs. It also assumes that any foodborne illness contracted at that Starbucks could be definitively traced back to the diseased muffin or whatever. The fact is, it couldn’t be, because a world in which no government health regulations exist is also a world in which no government agency exists to trace the outbreak back to its source.

This also assumes that consumers would learn about the risk presented by the Gross Starbucks through word spreading about people getting sick after having eaten or drunk coffee (or chai) there. It assumes, in other words, that people will get sick. They knew the risks. Let ’em poop!

You might argue that I’m taking this way too literally, that the Senator was merely making a larger, metaphorical point about an excess of government regulation and its hamstringing effects on business and consumer choice.

Well, exactly. There comes a point at which ideology, whether it’s the free-market extremist or Marxist kind, has to come down to Earth and encounter the actual world of human beings doing things. Metaphor works fine in campaigns, less well in actual governance. Of course Tillis is opposed to excessive government regulation—it’s a, maybe the, cornerstone principle of American conservatism.

But when someone like Tillis talks about overregulation and uses as an example an issue of public health, he’s saying, in effect, that there’s no place for any kind of public regulation of business at all. If a government shouldn’t create and enforce regulations to stop the spread of disease, for Typhoid Mary’s sake, exactly what should it do, and how many people have to suffer the avoidable consequences in the name of freedom?

Oh, I know. I’m taking this too seriously. Ol’ Thom was using humor to make a point, like Rush. The C-SPAN moderator made a joke about not shaking Tillis’ hand, then shook it, and Tillis laughed, and the audience laughed, and it was all in good fun.

But this is how, to extend the metaphor, insanity gets injected into the mainstream of political thought, and how what appears to be a joke in 2015 becomes a truism 10 years later. Even if Tillis was joking, or half-joking, there’s no question that the Republican Party sees government not as the collective expression of a populace but an evil to be eradicated one set of rules at a time, even if it means people getting hurt or sick or financially ruined, because liberty. That, at base, isn’t funny, isn’t funny at all.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest