Those of us who believe that government is at best a necessary evil, and that whatever government one has should be strictly limited in its powers, are routinely mocked by those who see government as a teddy bear, a comforting presence whenever they're worried about something, and they're always worried about something. Their catchphrase is "But what if...?" You mention the possibility of doing something useful with the bureaucratic classes, such as, oh, turning the Department of Education into a tortilla factory, and immediately they trot out the phrase: "But what if students on [name of some place they've never been and wouldn't go to if you paid them] can't afford textbooks?" In vain you will point out that textbooks these days are mostly crap, and that the students might be better off without them; they won't hear you, because they're already planning the next round.

The bureaucrats, of course, are aware that they are viewed this way by a substantial, if hardly substantive, percentage of the population; and not being entirely dim, they spend much of their time looking for things to do that will bolster that support. Consider, if you will, the threat posed by independent music teachers:

In March of this year, a small nonprofit in Cincinnati — the Music Teachers National Association — received a letter from the FTC. The agency was investigating whether the association was engaged in, uh, anticompetitive practices. This was bizarre, given that the MTNA has existed since 1876 solely to advance the cause of music study and support music teachers. The 501(c)(3) has about 22,000 members, nearly 90% of them piano teachers, including many women who earn a modest living giving lessons in their homes. The group promotes music study and competitions and helps train teachers. Not exactly U.S. Steel.

The association's sin, according to the feds, rested in its code of ethics. The code lays out ideals for members to follow — a commitment to students, colleagues, society. Tucked into this worthy document was a provision calling on teachers to respect their colleagues' studios, and not actively recruit students from other teachers. That's a common enough provision among professional organizations (doctors, lawyers), yet the FTC avers that the suggestion that Miss Sally not poach students from Miss Lucy was an attempt to raise prices for piano lessons.

"But what if there's a conspiracy to fix prices?" Is there any evidence that there is a conspiracy to fix prices? Change the subject, quick:

The group's executive director flew to Washington to meet with FTC regulators, explaining that this line in the code of ethics was "strictly aspirational," but the FTC didn't care. Then the MTNA removed it from the code of ethics. The FTC didn't care. Then the MTNA had the nerve to point out that the FTC doesn't even have the power to regulate nonprofits.

With all the quiet, reasoned deliberation of a five-year-old boy yelling "Oh, yeah? I'll show you!" the Feds struck back:

This October, MTNA signed a consent decree — its contents as ludicrous as the investigation. The association did not have to admit or deny guilt. It must, however, read a statement out loud at every future national MTNA event warning members against talking about prices or recruitment. It must send this statement to all 22,000 members and post it on its website. It must contact all of its 500-plus affiliates and get them to sign a compliance statement.

The association must also develop a sweeping antitrust compliance program that will require annual training of its state presidents on the potential crimes of robber-baron piano teachers. It must submit regular reports to the FTC and appoint an antitrust compliance officer. (The FTC wanted the officer to be an attorney, but Mr. [Gary L.] Ingle explained that this would "break the bank," so the agency — how gracious — is allowing him to fill the post.) And it must comply with most of this for the next 20 years.

Teddy Bear turns out to be a nasty, snarling, putrid-smelling beast, whom you shouldn't have befriended in the first place. But you didn't care: you wanted your precious security. And you've got it — until he turns on you. Which he will. You've given him both the power and the encouragement, and when he does, this is what you get from me: "But what if everybody decided to mind their own goddamn business?"

Assuming there is a Next Administration, its very first priority should be turning Washington, D.C. into the world's largest producer of tortillas.

(With thanks to Kristi Young Wood. Let's go for enchiladas.)

The Vent

  1 December 2013

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 Copyright © 2013 by Charles G. Hill