Monday, September 2, 2013

A Nation of Laws?

Both conservatives and liberals spend a lot of time complaining about oppressive government, so you might think they would agree more often.  I think there are some issues where they do agree, and where they should co-operate because they can do something useful to reign in a government that sometimes get out of control.

I found such an issue when I was reading the DailyKos website.  I visit the DailyKos because the people who comment there can be counted on never to say anything nice about a Republican or a conservative.  In that sense, they are much like mainstream news media, but are less restrained about their views and therefore give me a sense of the motives that underlie liberals' arguments.  On this occasion, I was surprised to find an article that I agreed with almost 100%.  The subject:  the state of Wisconsin was alerted to an animal shelter that held a deer, which is apparently against some state law or regulation.  They raided the shelter with an armed enforcement team and killed the deer on the spot.

Hardly any sane person could be in favour of killing a baby deer named Giggles (yes, that was the name the shelter had given the fawn), yet that is exactly what happened.  Not a deer that happened to be rabid or that had mauled a toddler or anything, just a random deer housed by an animal shelter.  What kind of logic could lead to such an action?  More on that in a moment.

For now, realize that there such government actions are not that unusual.  I don't mean they happen every day in every town, but something like this is so bizarre that you might think it would be an anomaly, that you would have a hard time finding a comparable example.

Not so.  Consider the family in Michigan that rescued a baby deeer after its mother was killed by a car.  They had been raising it for five years when Michigan's Department of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Natural Resources found out about it.  Since they were not "licensed rehabilitators," the family was told they would have to release the animal.  This story has a happy ending insofar as the family got to keep the deer, but only because Michigan did not send in a SWAT team in the style of the Wisconsin raid and dispense justice on the spot.  A campaign of people who are not insane organized on Facebook, a petition gathered thousands of signatures, and the government eventually agreed to bend its rules.  The family could keep the deer, but still has to pay an annual fee of $450 for the privilege of caring for a defenseless animal, as well as having annual disease checkups.

Even a momentary act of kindness can be punished by the state.  A Massachussetts couple who rescued a seal that had been badly mauled by a shark faced a possible $5,000 fine under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it illegal to touch or harass the mammals.  Probably the seal, which was photographed kissing its rescuers, didn't feel harassed, but no one bothered to ask its opinion.  According to the local aquarium, "anyone who thinks a seal is in distress should instead call the U.S. Coast Guard or emergency officials."

This is the overwhelming direction of policy now:  leave everything to experts.  But even when the authorities have the resources to intervene and agree to do so, that doesn't mean that the emergency will be taken care of.  In England, a man who suffered a seizure proceeded to drown in three feet of water while 25 emergency workers looked on.  The fire crew that arrived first hadn't been trained to enter the water, which was shallow enough that they could wade in (and all were able to swim in any case).  A policeman was ordered to stay out when he attempted to rescue the man.  A paramedic was kept out because his lack of "protective clothing" might put him in violation of the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.  Thank goodness the government was looking after his interests, otherwise, who knows what might have happened?

This is part of our "safety first" culture, which warrants an article of its own.  The point here is the proliferation of rules that prevent ordinary human charity.  Cities around the country have cracked down people and groups that wanted to do no more than distribute food to hungry people -- in Raleigh, Houston, and Phoenix. In Hartford, a man who had been giving out free haircuts in a city park for the past 25 years was ordered to stop.

Are there legitimate concerns in some of these cases?  Yes, mostly questions of safety and sanitation.  Who is to blame?  While the death of Giggles was the result of an administrator taking things much too far, not all the cases can be blamed on bureaucrats.  The Phoenix church was ordered to stop distributing food after a judge ruled against them, and city officials in Hartford only moved against Joe the Barber because neighbours complained expressed concern about safety and sanitation.

One thing all of these cases have in common, however, is the existence of laws.  Laws with reasonable-sounding objectives, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations.  And the one common solution I can find for these issues is:  have fewer laws.

I am by no means an anarchist.  Laws are absolutely necessary, and I have no doubt that our complex society needs so many that -- sad to say -- a phalanx of lawyers will be necessary to interpret and understand them.  But we could do with far, far fewer laws than we presently have.

A law is a blunt instrument.  It is very solid, in a country like the United States where respect for the law is widespread and enforcement relatively uncorrupt, but it is inevitably blunt.  Regulating the distribution of food, which is normally a commercial enterprise, sounds like a good idea in principle, but it ends up getting used to prevent people from giving out charity.  You can write in exceptions, but that just makes the law more complicated and almost certainly still interferes with some unobjectionable activities.  Already, the laws being cited are obscure enough that the criminals perpetrators accused citizens have no idea what law they are breaking.  "No representative from the Raleigh Police Department was willing to tell us which ordinance we were breaking," said one member of the Raleigh church.  Apparently it wasn't too important, because the church had been giving out free food for six years without any government intervention.  Then, according to the church's pastor, one day "an officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested."

I think it's perfectly reasonable to suggest that you may be violating a number of laws in your everyday life without even being aware of them.  If the government decides to start enforcing that law one day, you may find yourself in court, or even in prison, without having realized you were doing anything wrong.

That is not my idea of a free society.  It is not truly a nation of laws, but a nation of administrative whim in which no citizen can expect to know even a remote fraction of the laws he is supposed to obey.  And the trend is getting worse.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is 907 pages, long enough that even proponents admitted that they hadn't read it, and it has produced thousands of pages more in regulations.  While the PPACA is a milestone in the length and complexity of legislation, it is just one example of a trend in which government laws (at all levels) are getting longer and regulating things in more minute detail.

Some laws can be fixed; in some cases, it is worth living with the burden of more regulations.  And in many cases, it is better to live with more ambiguity, accept the fact that not everything is going to be perfectly safe or fair, but that it's better to use your judgment as an individual to decide what things to eat or see or smoke or avoid than to live under the weight of massive regulations.

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