Government vs. Bedbugs, Part 2: Government is the Bigger Pest

Thanks to libertarian Megan McArdle for picking up on my previous post about the federal government’s efforts to address bedbug infestations. She argues that this may be a legitimate role for the government:

I know I’m a squish, but isn’t this the sort of thing that governments should do? Pest infestations are genuine public health problems–the kind where your tolerating a bedbug infestation means that I might end up with critters. Indeed, I’m stalking a mouse right now that seems to be feasting in the neighboring row house, then coming over to our place to sleep. Public health has made titanic achievements in sanitation, under which rubric pest infestations fall, and even most libertarians recognize this.

Maybe you don’t think we ought to have public housing. But as long as we do, isn’t it a good thing that we’re trying to keep it from being the epicenter of a bedbug epidemic?

First of all, I don’t mean to belittle the annoyance and irritation that bedbugs cause (not to mention the ickiness factor), but they do not rise to the level of public health problem that rats or roaches do. As an Associated Press article about the issue points out, “Bedbugs are not known to transmit any diseases.”

But to address the issue at hand, she’s right: I don’t believe that we should have public housing in the first place. Besides being well out of the scope of the government’s constitutional duties, government has proven time and time again that it is a poor landlord.

As for the bedbugs themselves, the point is not that the problem should be ignored, but rather that fighting bedbugs is not a proper function of government–especially the federal government. (And the government has not helped in the effort so far by banning a number of pesticides that would actually be effective at combating the pests.)

Where do we draw the line on government intervention? Should we nationalize the pest control companies so that the government can prescribe how best to attack the problem, what methods should be used, how many employees are needed to address the problem nationwide, how much to pay those employees, and how much to charge for services? That would clearly be a disaster, although perhaps then the pest control companies could get in on some of the bailout money and “stimulate” the economy. Then there is the fairness argument: why should people in non-infested places have to subsidize people in infested places through their tax dollars devoted to government eradication programs (or Environmental Protection Agency conferences)? In short, bedbugs may be a pest, but government is an even bigger pest.