The Nanny State Stains a Deck

When candidates run for public office — local, state, or federal — they campaign on some careful blend of their résumés, their personalities, and their political issues.

Thus it has always been, and thus it will always be, in a republic.  "Vote for me because I have the experience to do it well," or "Vote for me because I'm so much like you, I'll represent your interests," or "Vote for me because we agree on these twenty or thirty specific issues."

But there is something going on that we don't usually expect, and while it's been in process for a century now, it's become blatant only for the past decade or so, and that's the growth of a regulatory state that virtually no candidate ever really campaigns on: the incredibly intrusive growth of the picky, micromanaging regulatory state.

I'll begin with a personal example.

I bought a house 20 years ago that came with a large wooden deck, about 25'x20'.  After a few years of experimenting, I found a solid oil deck stain that I loved working with, and I enjoyed several years of success using it.  Then, several years ago, I couldn't find it anymore — the manufacturer had stopped manufacturing it — so I bought another brand of "oil deck stain" (the most expensive one, to be safe), and to say that my results were lousy would be putting it mildly.

We went from a product that applied easily, permeated the wood quickly, and lasted nicely without ever a product that's much harder to apply, takes a week to dry, peels the same season, and needs to be redone more frequently.

So I started investigating why, and I learned that it was because of a growing effort, state by state, to ban real oil deck stains at the state level, through the implementation of what they call "low-VOC" regulations.  Manufacturers are forced to either change their formulas to meet these regulations or make their products available in ever fewer states.

When this all commenced, one could drive to another state where his favorite products were still sold.

Advocates of federalism would instinctively say this is a good thing; it's the "laboratories of democracy" theory, where some states would be rewarded for sanity and others would be punished by the market for their statist policies.  But there's a problem with this theory.

We live in a national economy, and if a chemical company can't legally sell its product in every state, or at least in almost every state, the math just won't work anymore, and it will abandon the product, limiting its production to unrestricted products.  So it is that Thompson's eventually gave up and stopped production of its wonderful "Deck and House Solid Oil Stain."

The states that banned it for their own constituents essentially also banned it for their neighboring states who never voted for this at all.  Did they have that right?  Did they even understand the market well enough to understand that this is where it would eventually lead?

Now, I have options, of course.  The regulators who mandated the regulation that took my favorite product off the market will point out that I have lots of ways to deal with the problem besides using the current substandard options.

  • I can have all the wood removed from my deck and replace it with modern plastic or composite decking boards, which are treated a different way.
  • I can have my deck professionally resurfaced — stripping it, sanding it, and power-washing all the old coatings away — so I can start from scratch with a modern acrylic stain.
  • I can rip up the deck and put in a concrete patio.

All these alternatives would each cost thousands of dollars.  But if I could still get the product I was happy with — the product that worked, and has been banned — I could do it myself for about $80.

Let's say I choose one of these alternatives, and spend $5,000 or so having my wooden deck replaced by a composite deck.  I might be happy with that new deck, but maybe I can't afford that $5,000 price tag.  Or maybe I can, but now I won't have $5,000 to spend on all the other things on which I would've spent it.  So there's $5,000 that the government has forced me to spend on a contractor, which I will not be able to put in my retirement fund, or spend on a family vacation, or spend on some other home improvement that I really need, like finishing an attic or replacing a driveway or replacing the upstairs carpeting.

These are decisions that I should be able to make on my own, as an independent American citizen, not decisions forced on me by my government.

The deck restoration contractors will probably know that they owe this job to the nannies of the state governments, but will the hotels and restaurants and theaters that now don't get my business realize that they owe the loss of this business to these regulations?  No.  They'll never know.  But that loss is real, and the universe of "discretionary spending choices" like travel, entertainment, and hospitality is losing more and more business every year as a result of such regulations.

Now back to our politicians.

How many of these state politicians campaigned on any of this?  How many of them said, "Vote for me, and I'll ban your favorite deck stain, forcing you into potentially costly alternatives for your home?"

Virtually none of them.  Candidates don't run on these regulatory issues, and voters certainly never vote for candidates on the expectation that they will do such things to them if elected.  But it happens every day.

  • For decades, the federal government has mandated that automotive gasoline include a percentage of corn ethanol, which is destructive to our vehicles' engines, causes an increase in the price refiners must charge for their blends, and unnecessarily burns up a necessary food source, raising the prices of staples (such as cornmeal) on the global market, contributing to the starvation of millions.  This regulation benefits nobody but a few lobbyists and bureaucrats and maybe a couple of politicians.
  • For about ten years, the federal government has waged war on the incandescent lightbulb, gradually forcing a changeover to compact fluorescents, LEDs, and other new technologies that cost more, don't work with dimmer switches, and are infinitely more likely to be manufactured in China.  This regulation benefits nobody but the Chinese (and the American politicians they own).  Another personal aside: I remodeled my basement just before this Obama-era regulation began; the new bulbs don't work with the electrical systems that have been the American standard for over half a century, requiring expensive rewiring for any room with traditional dimmer switches.
  • The federal government has long attempted to curtail water use by regulating the design of shower heads, toilets, and bathroom faucets.  Now, there are areas that suffer from water shortages (such as California), but there are also areas where water shortages are virtually impossible (such as the Great Lakes region).  How is the design of shower heads any of the federal government's business?  The market can self-select appropriately without government meddling.
  • The related issue currently in the news is the world of natural gas appliances.  The United States has so much natural gas, it's practically free energy...but gas-powered ovens, ranges, furnaces, water heaters, and clothes dryers are under assault from blue states like New York and California and from the federal Department of Energy.  Some states have mandated that no new construction can include them; some cities have mandated that perfectly functional existing appliances be ripped out and replaced with electric.

The damage all this does is incredible, and largely untrackable.

It's an example of one of the laws of economics: the rule of unintended consequences.  You see the purchases of the new product, and its sellers are happy about that, but you don't see all the other purchases that can't happen, all the other businesses and industries that suffer, because government forced these other specific purchases, making funds unavailable for everything else.

It's a reduction in our standard of living in two ways — in addition to being forced into a product we dislike, since it's more expensive, it costs us some other expenditures that we would otherwise have been able to enjoy.

How many candidates run for office promising to do any of this?  How many won their races, and could honestly claim a mandate, for forcing low-flow toilets, tacky peeling deck stains, curly-Q lightbulbs, and electric cooktops on the American people?  Darned few, if any.

This is what the regulatory state — and therefore, the lack of constitutionally limited government designed to prevent it — has done to America: it not only robs us of our quality of life, but also denies us the ability to effectively make policy at the ballot box.

We have strayed far indeed from the design of the Framers.

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation professional and consultant.  A onetime Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009.  His book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II) are available on Amazon.

Image via Max Pixel.

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