The New Tyranny: Carbon Monoxide Detectors?

Written by Noah Kristula-Green on Sunday March 13, 2011

A report about repealing a carbon monoxide detector mandate set off a twitter debate and revealed how today's conservatives weigh libertarian ideas.

It started as a funny short item about right-wing excess.

A Montana representative introduced a bill to repeal a local law requiring landlords to install carbon monoxide detectors in rental properties.

Republican Representative Wayne C. Stahl explained that he is philosophically “opposed to mandates.” Besides, they cost landlords too much money: $30 per detector.

I wrote up the short item, and David Frum tweeted an announcement.

Then the debate really revved up.

Mary Katherine Ham of the Daily Caller responded:

It's not actually crazy to oppose carbon monoxide detector mandates on principle.

And suddenly we had respondents all over the twitterverse agreeing that carbon monoxide detectors - and possibly any and all fire codes - are threats to liberty.

To people outside the conservative world, the debate may seem strange. But it's also interesting and revealing about the way conservatives talk now.

A summary:

Argument: “The market will sort it out.”

Some expressed a view which placed a lot of faith in the efficient market hypothesis. If customers value their safety from CO poisoning, they will choose to avoid rental properties that do not provide the detectors, thus incentivizing landlords to provide detectors voluntarily.

From @Tyler1991 (Tyler James): (Tyler James at this point is referring to laws requiring airbags in cars, since the principles behind the laws are the same)

Still want to know: wudn't companies that don't provide airbags go bankrupt to ones that do? If thats what the public wants?

Argument: “It’s your own choice to risk exposure to carbon monoxide.”

A couple of people who weighed in went further. They argued that not every consumer may necessarily choose to rent from a unit that has a CO detector, but to put themselves at that risk is their choice:

From @DanFarfan:

The liberty is to chose to live in bldg w/ or w/o. Consumer decides.

From @MarthaZoller:

A good buy for whom? if you need a smoke detector or a co2 detector, then buy one and install yourself.

Argument: “This will distort the market.”

One commentator in particular, Nick Rizzuto, focused on how this would distort the market and possibly have far ranging consequences by pricing poorer people out of the market. The example he used was airbags and seat-belts in cars:

From @Nick_Rizzuto:

Over regulating safety has demonstrable effects on affordability, making goods like cars less accessible.

On the question of whether installing airbags in cars counts as tyranny:

From @Nick_Rizzuto:

To those for whom the price of a car has been put out of reach for the sake of the airbag . YES!

Argument: “This is a slippery slope.”

Many more weighed in by saying that the real issue at stake wasn’t whether this mandate was cost effective, but that it represented a “slippery slope” on the road to tyranny.  Many also pointed to other similar federal government laws as examples, i.e. efforts to mandate light bulb energy efficiency standards.

From @Tyler1991:

seatbelts are a perfect example. Why is that mandated? Its not "tyranny" its a soft, slowly encroaching tyranny.

From @KenShepherd:

Not tyranny but it is nanny state-ism. Not every problem requires government regulation or mandate.

From @Tyler1991: (The “thatched roof comments refers to comparisons to a point Frum made about the first American fire code: Governor John Winthrop's ban on thatched roofs in the city of Boston in 1631.

They started with thatched roofs, and now they are at SUV's. Look how far we have come!

From @rachelala:

or the tyranny of 'correct' lightbulbs?, already happened in UK

Argument: “Personal responsibility matters.”

From @mkhammer (Mary Katherine Ham):

It strikes me as more common-sensical & lightly regulated to say, "Here's how to prevent CO poisoning," & leave ppl the choice.

From @SarahWW:

Why wouldn't ordinary prudence be enough? Why would a mandate be needed?The imprudent and the noncomplying SAME folks

Argument: “This is about first principles.”

Finally, a popular argument was that this debate was about first principles, and that if conservatives must stand for something, it must be for liberty against the government telling you what to do.

From @CollegePolitico (Stephen Gutowski):

The question at hand is whether the loss of liberty is justifiable or not. It isn't whether or not the loss occurs

From @mwickens (Mark Wickens):

Rights are not subject to cost/benefit analysis. Cost to whom? Benefit to whom?

To be sure, people who engage in Twitter debates are a self-selecting group and don’t represent the breadth and depth of the conservative movement. But examining the rhetoric and arguments that get used is instructive. It shows that ideas and arguments from the conservative world of political magazines and Fox News do percolate outwards, whether it’s from books such as Liberal Fascism or Glenn Beck promoting Hayek on his television show.

What’s also interesting is that the commentators came to these opinions even though no one in the media had made a big deal about CO detectors before. It gives an insight into the current conservative frame of mind: It doesn’t matter what the regulation or mandate is, because if you learn that it exists it must inherently be bad. (In reviewing the transcript of the debate, I found only one person aside from Katherine Ham who argued against the mandate on a cost-benefit basis: @sarileyman who tweeted: "450 deaths per year in a nation of 310 million does NOT justify forcing tens of millions to spend money.")

The debate raises an important question. What does it take for a movement or group of people to view a carbon monoxide detector not as a cost/benefit question, but as the next incremental step in the loss of liberty? One could argue that all the money spent on the Cato Institute or from promoting copies of Atlas Shrugged is having an effect on the culture and that these libertarian ideas are spreading--at least among self-identified conservatives and conservative journalists.

This also raises the question of why consumer regulations like this seem to attract so much conservative ire. It's worth asking ourselves: Why is it easier for conservatives to get passionate over a rule requiring landlords to install carbon monoxide detectors than against the failure to charge motorists for the use of roads and highways - even though the latter is equally an offense against libertarian doctrine? Yet last week, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation published in the Weekly Standard (where Mary Katherine Ham also writes) a closely argued defense of more federal investment in the Interstate Highway system - and more federal taxes to pay for it.

For that matter, why is it easier to get passionate about carbon monoxide detectors than about dwindling upward mobility in the US - one of the most important justifications for a more libertarian society?

But that seems to be the way conservatism is these days. It's worth thinking about why.

Follow Noah on Twitter: @noahkgreen