Nanny-State Lawmakers Abuse Power

According to the newspaper The Guardian, British college students Richard Smith and Luke Bateman plan to go on a crime spree in the U.S. this summer.

Not your usual bank-robbery or Natural Born Killers spree, mind you. Their mayhem will focus on dumb laws. They plan to ride a bicycle underwater in the California, then take a nap in a North Dakota cheese factory. They might also stop in South Bend, Ind., and force a monkey to smoke a cigarette.

And if they end up in New York City, they could end their spree by greeting one another while "putting one's thumb to the nose and wiggling the fingers." All of these things, believe it or not, are illegal.

Today, we smirk at these old, rarely enforced statutes. They appear to have been passed by petty legislators because of personal peccadilloes or to settle grudges—quaint abuses of elected power, at least by today's standards.

In other cases, an isolated incident likely sparked a law — why Florida has bizarrely banned sexual relations with a porcupine, for example. Or why Alaska has forbidden pushing a moose out of an airplane.

It would be nice to think we're beyond making such petty affairs part of the legal code, that today's policymakers only concern themselves with the big issues, like securing us from terrorism and domestic crime. Unfortunately that's not the case.

Consider the following laws, either introduced or passed in only the first three months of 2005:

—After hearing complaints from the boys at his barbershop, Virginia legislator Algie Howell introduced a bill that would criminalize the trend of teenagers wearing their pants low on their hips. He isn't even the first. A similar bill was introduced in Louisiana last year. Howell has also sponsored bills putting restrictions on tricked-out automobiles and overly noisy stereo systems.

—The Montana legislature may ban the use of aluminum bats at baseball games.

—West Hollywood, Calif., has banned cosmetic surgery for pets, including cat declawing.

—A new machine that emits an alcohol mist has state lawmakers in Illinois, Missouri and Maryland scurrying to ban it, even though its effects are milder than actually drinking.

—New Jersey may ban anyone under 21 from owning a credit card.

—California and Illinois want to prohibit teens from using tanning beds.

—Colorado is considering designating a state-sponsored "No Name-Calling Week."

—San Francisco recently passed a new housing code — for doghouses.

The truth is, today's politicians routinely propose and pass laws every bit as invasive and silly as those Smith and Bateman plan to flaunt this summer. There's really no area of our lives that some enterprising lawmaker somewhere doesn't feel ought to be subject to state regulations, restrictions, prohibitions or taxes.

All of this overeager legislating would be amusing if it didn't have more serious real-world consequences. With few exceptions, every law Congress, your state legislature, or your city or county government passes chips away just a bit more of your freedom. Rare is the law that gives any back. Which is why Thomas Jefferson warned us more than 200 years ago that, "the natural progress of things is for government to gain ground and for liberty to yield."

We need to get over the notion that we as a society aren't serious about something until we pass a law against it. Most times, such laws do nothing but harass us. Many times, they make the problem worse.

Consider alcohol control. Minnesota and Montana both have laws putting the minimum drinking age at 21. They also have laws requiring bars and pubs to close at 1am. The result? The "power hour," where minors head to the bars on the eve of their 21st birthday, wait until midnight, then drink as much as they possibly can between midnight and last call. Both legislatures want to "fix" the problem by — you guessed it — passing another law. Both states are considering laws declaring that no one is "officially" 21 until 8 a.m. on the day of his 21st birthday.

Perhaps an even more serious concern are the unintended consequences that result from some of these laws. A tough food-handling law recently passed in Indiana inadvertently made church and Rotary club potlucks illegal.

Our elected officials are turning to the law to be our nanny, our teacher, our preacher, our doctor and our psychiatrist. We have laws that tell us how to think (hate crimes laws), what to eat (government interventions to stave off the "obesity crisis"), whom to love (state preferences for heterosexual couples), how to sin (vice laws and excise taxes), how to entertain ourselves (FCC regulations on broadcast and, potentially, cable programming), and way too many restrictions on what we can and can't do with the property we own (zoning laws, building permits, environmental regulations, etc.).

None of this is the proper province of government. Taken as a whole, it creates a society where government is present in nearly everything we do, and under some circumstances (such as owning a business) it's nearly impossible not to break the law. Many times, merely complying with the law becomes a significant expense.

We ought to tell our legislators to stop using the criminal code, tax code and regulatory state to do what our churches, schools, friends, family and communities should be doing. The rule of law exists to protect us from those who would do us physical harm or do harm to our property. A free society has no place for laws that make our decisions for us, interfere in our relationships and private transactions, or protect us from ourselves.

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at:

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