Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Governments are full of bugs

The famous scifi author (and self-described libertarian) David Brin tells a fascinating tale about how he contributed to getting the lead out of gasoline. He explains that an evil corporation (Ethyl Corporation) promoted leaded fuel. He explains that he helped organize a clean-car race where unleaded fuel did well. He suggests that this changed everything: by 1972, the government finally regulated the use of leaded fuel. It is a good thing too because lead is a terrible poison.

We have the evil corporation, the good activist and the benevolent government. We should be grateful for government regulations!

Of course, the tale is not complete.

The very high toxicity of lead was known well before 1970s. The use of lead in paint was prohibited in many countries at the beginning of the XXth century.

As early as 1920, we knew how to avoid lead with alcohol-gasoline blends. They were soon commercially available too.

Yet, by 1939, almost all gas sold in the US was lead-based, except for Sunoco. So how could lead-based gasoline take over? How could a toxic fuel win over safer alternatives? The story is complicated, but we can identify two important factors in the US:

  • The US Federal Trade Commission declared lead-based gasoline safe and it prevented competitors from denouncing it. Effectively, the government prevented competitors from telling consumers that they could buy a safer product. It also made lawsuits against the proponents of lead-based gasoline improbable.
  • The main alternative to lead-based fuels was ethanol-based… at a time when the US had enacted the prohibition of alcohol and pushed underground its distilleries. Alcohol-based cars must have sounded a bit like cannabis-based cars today.

But Brin’s story is still historically accurate: by 1972, the US government did the right thing and banned the dangerous lead-based gas. Finally! Some courageous and altruistic politicians rose up! Evil companies like General Motors are finally told to do the right thing!

Wait? You really think that’s how I am going to finish the tale?

In 1970, General Motors had asked for the elimination of lead from gasoline to make its new catalytic converters workable. So, what do you think got the government to eliminate lead from gasoline? David Brin and his forward-thinking clean-car race… or General Motors lobbying for its new technology?

But surely, Daniel, you don’t mean to tell us that politicians never stand up for what is right? Didn’t we solve the ozone layer crisis with the Montreal protocol? Didn’t the US government stand up to evil corporations like Dupont?

In fact, the regulations of the Montreal protocol were described by Dupont as having a tremendous market potential. Indeed, Dupont became favorable to the Montreal protocol once they acquired the patents (in 1986) that would allow them to market monopolistically their replacement technology. The Montreal protocol was signed a year later (1987).

This is a common pattern. People who hate corporations tend to be favorable to government regulations because they think that one opposes the other. They think regulations keep corporations in check. They sometimes do, but they often make things worse.

Regulating a society is like writing software. It sounds easy to amateurs, but it can be amazingly difficult. Software programmers typically cannot prove that their software will work. At best, in many practical cases, they can test it for typical cases. Unfortunately, government regulators don’t follow any of the good practices software programmers use. Worse: they never accept bug reports. Worse: they are often in an adversarial setting.

Any programmer will tell you what to do when testing is hard and failure is not an option: keep the software as simple as possible.

That’s not at all what government do. And, unsurprisingly, they are full of bugs.

Further reading:

Dedication: This post is dedicated to my family where, when something fails, we say that is has a bug.