Policy

Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don't Let the Massive Encroaching Public Health State Bite?

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our enemy, the bedbug

Adam Summers of Reason Foundation, the non-profit that publishes this magazine, is on the bedbug beat:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently hosted its first-ever National Bed Bug Summit.  And, as the AP article reports, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) is planning to reintroduce legislation to "expand grant programs to help public housing authorities cope with infestations."  The bill will be called the—I kid you not—"Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite Act."

Summers and The Atlantic's Megan McArdle are going back-and-forth about whether bedbug eradication is the proper function of the government. McArdle asks if a jihad on bedbugs might be part of the proper public health function performed even by a minimal state.

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. 

Summers notes  "bedbugs are not known to transmit any diseases," and asks whether involving the government, especially the federal government to get rid of what is essentially an annoyance might ultimately cause more harm than good.

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.

I tend to side with Summers—if there's no possibility of disease transmission, then bedbug committees in the name of the public health are not the way to go. The parallel is not to befouled drinking water or measles quarantines, but to a neighbor's annoying barking dog or encroaching tree. Not public health statues, but non-glamorous, weirdly vital tree law applies here.

For more, read Jacob Sullum on an "An Epidemic of Meddling."