What’s In A Name: How the Government Invites Definition Lobbyists

There’s been an interesting topic showing up in the Google News headlines for the last couple of days. The “experts” at the American Psychiatric Association are considering changing the definition of autism, which probably means that many people “would no longer meet the criteria to get health, educational and social services.” Naturally a lot of people are concerned about losing access to these services. I haven’t been able to figure out yet exactly what kinds of services these articles are talking about, whether it’s private (like insurance) or public (like government programs) or some of both (probably), but it’s interesting how definitions are becoming so important these days, especially as they seem to endlessly and arbitrarily change.

Last month our government decided that X-Men are not humans. For reasons unbeknownst to me, our tariff laws dictate that “the import tax on dolls is twice what it is for toys.” Well, the makers of X-Men action figures wanted to pay the lower rate, so their lawyers fought the customs office to argue that X-Men weren’t humans so they could be charged the toy rate instead of the doll rate, and “the court found that mutants are not human.” (Of course, this caused a fun and ironic storm in the comic world since a key part of the X-Men story is that the mutants are trying to convince the government that they are human, or at least that they deserve the same rights.) None of this would have mattered at all if we didn’t have laws that allowed a bunch of money to be hinged on the definitions of “doll” and “toy.” If there was no import tax, or even if it was just the same for dolls and toys, we would never have had to force a court to waste time making a decision on the humanness of X-Men.

Two months ago, the public mocked our government for deciding that pizza sauce was still a vegetable so that it would qualify for healthy school lunch programs. The news articles said the frozen food industry was to blame. Just like with the X-Men action figures, businesses had money to make based on the government’s definition of something, so they lobbied the government to define it in their favor. And, just like with the X-Men action figures, this would not have happened if the government hadn’t been involved in the businesses already. But of course it’s a lot easier to say the government shouldn’t be creating discrete classes of import taxes than it is to say the government shouldn’t be providing school lunches. Think of the poor, starving children and all that. (I would say, “I thought that’s what food stamps were for,” but that’s probably a heartless conservative response from someone who just doesn’t understand how hard it is to be a poor working single mother with no time to prepare beautiful, healthy lunches for her children every morning.) But if you’re going to provide food, and you want that food to have certain characteristics, then you’re going to have to buy it from somebody, and everybody’s going to try to convince you that they have those characteristics so you will buy it from them.

Indeed, pointing out the difficulties of regulation by definition does not prove that such things shouldn’t happen. Otherwise we could have no laws at all. But it does suggest that the more regulation you have, the more arbitrary definitions you’re going to need, and the more opportunities you create for businesses to have large amounts of money resting on the terms of those definitions, and the more incentives you create for these businesses to send lobbyists to tweak the terms of those definitions in their favor. And at that point, the regulation may or may not still be providing the public good that was no doubt the intention of its creation. Just something for you progressives to keep in mind when you’re arguing for more regulation out there; that’s the stuff from whence vegetable pizza sauce comes.

But let’s go back to the autism definition that sparked this whole post, because unlike my previous two examples, I see no evidence that this example has anything to do with lobbyists to the government. It looks like it has to do with experts from a private professional organization that are trying to improve a medical definition that just happens to probably be tied to benefits that people receive – benefits that are probably mostly from the government but not necessarily. I don’t know enough about how this works (and can’t find enough information from the articles I’ve read) to really know what to say about all that, but if this new definition goes through, I won’t be surprised if some people start lobbying the government to provide benefits based on the old definition. That’s just how this stuff works.

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