Is the great “emotional support animal” scam coming to an end? Delta Airlines announced it is tightening its rules for service and support animals, and a Washington Post story on the subject notes other efforts to combat the widespread abuse of the “emotional support animal” designation. States are also “cracking down” on people who are passing off their pets as service and support animals in order to reap the benefits of that protected status.
These benefits do make it an attractive scam. The last time I flew with one of my dogs, it cost an extra $200 round-trip, and he had to spend the flights in a travel crate under the seat in front of me. With a little time, money, and dishonesty, I could have gotten him certified as an emotional support animal, with free flights and a nice view out the window.
That’s not all: claiming a pet as a support animal can confer all sorts of privileges, from ignoring “No dogs allowed” signs at restaurants and malls to silencing a landlord’s complaints about an otherwise-prohibited Doberman pinscher.
No one wants to be sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, so it has been easy for people to game the system by pretending that their pets are actually therapeutic support animals. What originated as a protection for highly trained service dogs and the people who rely on them has become an exploit available to any unscrupulous pet owner.
Snakes On a Plane
Of course, “Peanuts” creator Charles Schultz was right that “happiness is a warm puppy,” but that doesn’t mean every dog should fly free, let alone every pig, duck, or spider. As much as many of us love our pets, their “emotional support” is not medically necessary to our air travel. However, the flying menagerie does offer a valuable reminder of the limits of government good intentions. In this case, laws and regulations meant to protect the rights of the disabled have produced a parody of an already ridiculous Samuel Jackson movie, with people trying to bring emotional support snakes onto a plane.
Politicians and pundits love to pronounce on the predicted effects of policy proposals, but the thing about unintended consequences is…they’re unintended. No one meant for there to be a proliferation of pets with dubious federally protected “emotional support animal” status, but the incentives were created and people took advantage of the system.
More seriously, no one meant for Social Security disability to become a backdoor form of welfare, but welfare reform made finding a way to claim disability benefits more attractive—watch TV during the hours most people work or sleep and you’ll see plenty of lawyers advertising their skill at securing this entitlement cash. No one meant for black-market Pepsi to become a commonplace in poor communities, but cases of soda are a useful commodity for those who want to turn their government food assistance into cash.
And no one, probably not even the drug companies profiting from it, meant to create the opioid epidemic that now ravages our nation. However, an emphasis on controlling pain, rather than on controlling pills, produced an environment in which money was made while addiction and pill mills thrived. When those began to be shut down, heroin was waiting.
We expect that laws will be broken, which is why punishments are provided for breaking them. But laws and regulations aren’t just broken, they are skirted, evaded, exploited, and responded to in ways that lawmakers (often naively) do not expect. Enact a prohibition, and people will try to find a way around it. Confer a benefit, and people will try to get it, even if it is not meant for them. Businesses will try to manipulate market interventions, securing their profits and cutting out their rivals.
People Simply Tend to Put Themselves First
Political scientists and economists have developed a variety of terms to describe these and related phenomena. Moral hazard, for example, refers to the propensity for people to take on more risk if someone else bears the cost. Public choice theory has brought attention to the self-interested nature of government actors, including ostensibly impartial civil service experts. Rent seeking and regulatory capture describe how interested parties will use government to advance their own interests, rather than the common good. All of this scholarship is rooted in a simple insight into human nature: People tend to act in their own perceived self-interest in making and responding to laws and regulations.
This may seem like a banal truism, but it is often overlooked by those confident of their ability to use government power to reshape society. In contrast, humility regarding the ability of government to achieve its ends may contribute to effective governance, as it takes account of the realities of human nature. Easy access to benefits or privileges leads to fraud and abuse, as seen in the multitudes willing to lie to get free airfare for their pets.
As with anything human, we should not expect perfection from government, and abuse and unintended consequences do not necessarily discredit a program or law. Protections for persons with disabilities may be worth some free flights for fake “emotional support animals,” and some food stamps laundered into cash via Pepsi may be a reasonable price to pay for the program.
But we should be clear-eyed about the real consequences of government action and regulation. If government is handing out cash, expect grifters and scammers to get some. As Terry Pratchett observed, if there is a sizeable bounty on rats, then people will start rat farms. If government is taking money, expect tax accountants to respond creatively. And if airlines have to give free flights to vaguely defined “emotional support animals,” don’t be surprised if flying goes to the dogs.