Thursday, March 31, 2011

Laws Exist Where Logic Doesn't

DAY 23 OF 46

No doubt about it: America has become a nanny-state.

That means we have too many laws governing too much human behavior.  One of the most well-known critics of our nanny-state, TV personality John Stossel, complains in a recent edition of Readers Digest that our government should "leave people alone... I think people should be able to do whatever the heck they want to do as long as they don't hurt somebody else."

And at first glance, he's right.  Legislation-creep has radically increased the scope of government intrusion into the private lives of every American.  Far more than our Founding Fathers intended.

But even though I agree that we've allowed politicians to craft excessive legislation for controlling how and what we do, I'm hesitant to call for repeals of these laws.

Because in this day and age, I see laws as a way to minimize the impact stupid people have on my life.

Laws Protect Us From Selfishness and Stupidity

What do I mean by that?  Quite simply: most laws exist because at some point, logic didn't.  Very few laws get crafted in a vacuum; some negative activity usually precipitates the awareness of a need for legislation.  If every American could be trusted to act responsibly and think about how the things they do affect others, would the government have to protect each of us from each others' bad behavior?

For example, wearing seat belts while in a moving vehicle became codified into law when drivers refused to acknowledge the safety benefits on their own.  Seat belts don't just protect you and the occupants in your car, which are excellent benefits in and of themselves.  They also protect other drivers like me because, if you get hit hard and flail about inside the passenger compartment of your vehicle, chances are pretty good that you'll lose control of your vehicle and risk hitting one of us.  With a seat belt, you benefit from a greater ability to remain in the drivers seat and in a position - literally - to maintain control of your car.  Your passengers also won't be flying into you, risking even further loss of control.

Should we need a law to mandate something as logical as seat belt usage?  No, we shouldn't need one; but our society's need for such a law came about because too many people were selfish in their decisions not to wear them.  Now that enough drivers proved they couldn't be trusted to make a logical commitment on their own, the government felt it had to step in.  After all, protection is one of the fundamental roles of government.

Or consider another dangerous driving habit - talking and texting on cell phones.  Let's face it: it doesn't matter if you have a hand-held phone or a headset, using mobile phones is distracting in the best of circumstances.  Don't tell me you can multi-task when you drive; why should I have to be the guinea pig of your own myopic experiment?  Why should I take your word for it?  Would you trust me implicitly if I told you I could drive 70 mph headed towards you on a road, texting away about where to have dinner?  Yet many people continue to insist on engaging in dangerously distracting behavior while behind the wheel.  So, to protect people like me from people displaying morally reprehensible behavior, laws continue to be drafted about cell phone usage while driving.

Is Government the Only One to Blame?

Add up all these innocuous little laws, and pretty soon, our society appears to be drowning in the effluent of nanny state drivel.  People like Stossel get their knickers in a twist accusing the government of being greedy for power over mundane aspects of everyday life.  But it's those mundane aspects of everyday life that too many people have abused which have created the need for legislation to protect the rest of us.  How much can we really blame on the government?

Even Stossel himself claims that he's been hit by a cab in New York City as he was jaywalking.  And maybe he wonders why there are laws against jaywalking in America's most populous and pedestrian-oriented city!  Granted, taxi drivers aren't the world's most gracious road warriors, but if he's ever complained about the fares he pays to ride them, doesn't he realize that a tiny fraction of that fare includes the liability insurance all cabbies pay because of people like him who willingly jaywalk?  Sure; his one little incident is a drop in the insurance premium bucket, but multiply that by the millions of people who live in and visit New York, and you can see how jaywalking could become a serious problem.

Perhaps you and Stossel would prefer paying higher cab fares to cover damages caused by jaywalkers and simply chalk up the extra expense as part of the cost of living in a society full of selfish people.  But selfishness is really only a character trait we find admirable when it's we who are being selfish.  We rarely value selfishness when displayed by other people.  So what does that say about our society that more and more laws get crafted to counteract the selfishness of too many people in our community?

Have you ever heard of anomie?  It's a sociological term to describe the disconnect participants in a particular environment can develop as personal relationships remain scarce or tepid. The famous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens sparked a widespread recognition of the phenomenon of people who, although crowded together in a confined neighborhood, could hear the guttural screams of a woman being stabbed to death and shrug it off as somebody else's problem.  Nobody called the police during the entire half-hour it took her murderer to commit his heinous crime, because even people who paid any concern to the screams they heard assumed somebody else would get involved.

The Disconnect From Being Disconnected

Now, even most critics of our nanny state would agree that outlawing murder constitutes a basic government prerogative.  But isn't it interesting that even though I can't compare the Kitty Genovese murder to not wearing a seatbelt, the same indifference lies behind both scenarios, doesn't it?  We're almost always the ones who should be able to ignore what we want to ignore and do what we want to do.  Our worlds almost always revolve around ourselves and our spheres of influence.  We forget that we're part of a greater community of drivers on a freeway, neighbors on a residential block, parents of kids in an elementary school, and any other group of people who share the many slices of life that make up the American experience.

I'm not preaching the virtues of hounding everybody into suffocating conformity, or forcing us all to march in straight lines of precise activity.  But if we thought about how our actions - or inactions - affected other people before we did - or didn't - do them, we'd probably have a lot fewer laws on the books. That's not to say that every law currently on the books has a valid reason for being there.  But I suspect the number that are valid is higher than people like Stossel would care to admit.

It sounds real American to say that we're individuals and we should have the right to do what we want when we want. But you don't have the right to compromise my safety. Your right to swing your fist stops at my nose.

If we policed ourselves better, and held ourselves to a greater standard of accountability and responsibility, then our nanny state would become redundant.

But until we all get a lot more selfless, unfortunately, we're going to need to have our diapers changed a whole lot more than we like.

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