Letters

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What's so risky about crossing species boundaries? There's no evidence of any systemic risk from switching genes between species. Incidentally, a good percentage of human DNA originally came from retroviruses and bacteria. And of course no one wants people to starve. Yet starvation is likely to be an unintended consequence of opposition to biotech.

Ms. Herrick, genetically enhanced corn does not have extra ingredients. It's just corn. Producers today don't separately list the various hybrids of corn, wheat, or soybeans, all of which have different nutritional properties, because that information is not relevant to consumer safety and food quality. It's the same with biotech crops. With regard to food allergies, the really good news is that biotech techniques will allow companies to remove many allergens from the "natural" crop plants that contain them, making food even safer for more consumers.

Ms. Coobac, no one, including Per Pinstrup-Andersen, has ever said that biotech food can solve all the world's problems, but it will surely play a role in ameliorating some of them. Also, Pin-strup-Andersen is not talking about "giving GM food to low-income single mothers," but rather providing them with GM crop seeds to plant and harvest. By the way, the African women of whom he was speaking are not generally "single mothers." It's just that traditionally, women grow most of the food in Africa.

Shaky Ground

As a custom builder and developer specializing in log homes, I can express amazement that the Hampshire couple in "Shaky Ground," by Gene Callahan (January), were able to complete the process so quickly. In many cases, it's really far, far, far worse than he described. And we the people just keep shuffling backwards, smiling graciously, hoping for another reasonable bureaucrat to help us.

Toni Reita
Goldendale, WA

I read with interest Gene Callahan's article on the tyranny of officials with discretion and his call for less bureaucratic latitude and clearer rules. As the chief building code official of a large eastern subdivision for the past 20 years, I have studied and participated in this process.

Land regulation presumes that one property owner's liberty must be constrained at the point where it threatens the liberty of another. Agreeing on the exact location of that point is, of course, the problem. I have heard from people who think any constraint in their use of their property is outrageous; others think the law should regulate what color their neighbor paints his front door.

Once decided on, these controversial constraints are codified in the form of regulations. Regulations, no matter how carefully written, can never anticipate the full range of situations to which they will apply. And, as has been clear since the days of Max Weber, the idea behind bureaucracy is to limit individual discretion, and hence arbitrariness. Ideally, a bureaucracy acts strictly according to clear and predictable rules. But we have a conflict: The complexity of individual cases requires flexibility, while the bureaucratic structure emphasizes rigidity. This problem is compounded by the conflicting attitudes of applicants themselves; most want predictability so they can know the requirements, but also flexibility if they can't meet them.

Making matters even worse, regulation has collected on the body of the law like barnacles on a barge. In addition to the many laws already in place, you may rest assured that people are busy dreaming up new ones. One such new law, already in place in several jurisdictions, requires that individual homes be accessible to the disabled. The paradox is that many people say they want less regulation of themselves, but support more regulation of everyone else. So laws proliferate.

Having been involved in some of the review boards, I often feel like a Florida election official: No matter what decision is made, someone will cry foul. A more cynical bureaucrat might say that an impartial decision is one in which all parties are equally unhappy. Given the realities of government, politics, and human nature, there is no magic solution. In practice, the decisions of these bureaucrats or boards can be arbitrary or even nonsensical at times, but for the most part, these decisions represent attempts to reconcile broad laws, specific conditions, practicality, alternatives, individual hardship, and the ever-elusive "public good."

John Reisinger
Towson, MD

An examination of how local governments work might shed some light on Gene Callahan's complaint in "Shaky Ground." First, "bureaucrats with discretion" is an oxymoron. Bureaucracy is intentionally a factory assembly line applied to human activities. It is rule-bound, intended to treat everyone exactly the same (to avoid the favoritism or "deals" associated with "boss" political systems). But that's the major complaint about it -- that it doesn't take individual circumstances into account. Government employees who deal with the public are often bound by the laws adopted by elected officials.

Discretion, on the other hand, is commonly bestowed on boards and commissions appointed by the elected officials. Boards and commissions are made up of appointed citizens, not government employees. They may be community-mind-ed volunteers or they may be campaign contributors with a financial interest in the business of their boards. They meet once or twice a month and may have limited knowledge of the technical or public policy aspects of whatever they oversee. They certainly don't have the knowledge of the subject matter that day-to-day administrative employees should have. Also, the members often come from backgrounds in which they have little or no experience in exercising authority, and some exercise it with tyrannical fervor when they have it.

My reading of Philip Howard's The Death of Common Sense is that he wanted administrative officials (government employees) to have discretion in applying regulations. Arbitrary exercise of discretion would quickly get out of hand if one had to apply it every day, so constant experience results in more sober judgments. With administrative discretion, many requests would never go in front of a board or commission and be subject to their more probable arbitrariness.

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