Posted by: JDM..... | January 11, 2012

On Legislating Good Judgment

Terrible ideas share the unvarying pedigree of having started out as good ideas badly thought out.

Historically, I have tended to vote Libertarian, Independent, or Republican. I’m of bit of a political mongrel in that regard, but I don’t think I’m that unique, really. I know a few people who would vote a straight party line ticket without reservation even under the most ridiculous of circumstances, but I believe the majority of folks put some thought into it. I wasn’t pleased with the Democrat victory in November of 2008, but neither was I fan of President George Bush nor particularly enthused about John McCain being paired up with Sarah Palin.

The Libertarians have spent more time and energy conducting a non-stop beg-a-thon for the past decade than they have addressing any issues of interest, and the CATO Institute hasn’t run any candidates that I know of yet, so I was a bit at sea when it came time to cast my vote

I have tried very hard to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt since he was sworn in. I didn’t like his political portrait but, as our first President of African heritage, I felt he might be the right person in the right place at the right time to foster some significant positive changes in the American social landscape.

That was naïve of me from the outset. Democrats don’t tend to “foster” change, they kick in the door and legislate it. They are the Boy Scouts who walk the little old lady across the street for her own good whether she wants to cross or not.

Regardless, I was encouraged-or perhaps I should say successfully distracted-by his suggestion that he would do something about the entitlement culture. I was also impressed with his articulate presentation and the potential he had for serving as a role model other than the likes of Dennis Rodman for our inner city youth. That opinion has not changed. Politics aside, I still believe Obama has the potential to leave a positive mark on the American brand. But that cautious support is waning.

My most recent excuse for throwing the morning paper across the kitchen and spewing obscenities, besides the cat deciding to use the litter box at the precise moment I begin to eat my breakfast, was the piece about a possible Federal ban on texting while driving.

Like virtually all major Democrat missions, the idea addresses a behavior or circumstance that most people hate anyway, so it is difficult to criticize without sounding like a “Grinch”. Like virtually all major Democrat missions, it would prefer to err on the side of safety rather than on the side of individual freedom and responsibility. Like virtually all major Democrat missions, it proposes to attach compliance with the legislation to the distribution of Federal dollars the States have become dependent upon in order to comply with requirements previously established by the Federal government. Technically, the states retain the “freedom” to tell the Fed to go screw, but then they would have to finance their own methods of complying with mandates concerning education, transportation, corrections, and host of other Federally financed and Federally diddled aspects of daily life.

Few things drive me to distraction more than seeing someone in the next lane on the Interstate or navigating in town traffic with a cell phone pasted to the side of his head or his attention fixed on some other electronic device instead of on the rapidly changing collision vector between his vehicle and mine. One of those annoyances of superior intensity is the rapidly changing collision vector between my right and responsibility to make rational decisions of my own accord the Federal government’s unilateral annexing of that activity “for the greater good”.

Where will it stop? Terrible ideas have an unvarying pedigree of having started out as good ideas badly thought out. No Legislator in his or her right mind has ever been documented in the Congressional Record as having blurted out “Hey! I have a positively dumb-assed idea I think we should enact immediately!” Nevertheless, bit by bit, unnoticeable detail by unnoticeable detail, government has become increasingly vested in the day to day activities of you and me, ostensibly in the interest of leveling the playing field and providing equal access to the benefits of our Constitution.

How ironic that the most common cry of protest by those who oppose each new regulation is the charge that the government is sacrificing the Constitution itself to fuel the fire that runs the engine that is supposed to protect that very document.

One of my concerns is that this progressive war for safety and equity will be waged at the cost of the freedom to enjoy it in the end. My observation is that in those societies where authority and force have been used to ensure that everyone gets his fair share, the only one’s left with any freedom, and consequently the “Captain’s Share”, are those in power, while the “safety” enjoyed by the citizenry is directly proportionate to their unwavering compliance. This inevitably becomes circular, rendering any periods of stability decidedly unequal and definitely temporary.

The question of how to provide a path of longevity for a society based upon the concepts of individual freedom and liberty presents a conundrum. Surely, those who are willing to sacrifice small bits of individual freedom of choice and responsibility in exchange for a little less inequity must see that there is a point of no return beyond which a free society ceases to exist and the only way to reacquire it would be through violence. Surely it must be held as self evident that absolute equality cannot exist in a free environment, because although we may equal in one sense we are certainly not the same. Even identical twins enjoy differences that make them individuals in the larger sense. Attempting to smooth out those differences by requiring one to provide for another, or bureaucratically pigeonholing people into approved levels of dependency whose needs are to be fulfilled by pigeonholing others into approved levels of social responsibility cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called “freedom” in the ideal sense.

But the question has never been whether or not the American people want freedom. It has always been a question of how much freedom we want, what each of us is willing to exchange for it, and where the reasonable parameters of compromise begin and end. I have never believed I have the right to demand that my neighbor be required to pay for my freedom, or visa versa.

By the same token, this is not the same land first visited by the colonists of the early seventeenth century and after, and we are not the same people with the same experiences and life stories. Those who formed the United States as an entity in the late eighteenth century applied what they knew in the context of their time and put together a rather brilliant blueprint for a system of freedom and liberty that had the potential to survive indefinitely, but only if the recipe was followed and the matrix left intact. It was a matrix intended to stay a matrix rather than become a finished product. Each era must be free to use the same matrix of freedom and liberty to construct appropriate solutions for the contexts of their age. Freedom can grow by improving how we use the matrix, but it cannot survive if we manipulate the matrix itself to make it fit the needs of the moment. In other words, freedom cannot grow, if the framework upon which it is being nurtured is changed.

The challenge facing the first President of African heritage to lead the United States, therefore, is to find ways to make significant improvements in the freedom he has experienced and sees around him, without damaging the framework upon which it is built. Plucking away bits of individual freedom because those individual bits have not been balanced adequately with individual responsibility increases neither and consumes both.

Therefore, although I agree wholeheartedly that texting while driving is a dumb behavior, making a Federal law about the issue will eliminate neither the texting nor the dumb, but it will reduce the freedom to choose not to do a dumb thing and the liberty to be responsible for one’s own behavior.

The President has far more important things to do than invent new ways for the Federal government to micromanage private behavior on the grounds that it takes place in a public venue while at the same time expanding the breadth of what is considered “public”.



  1. Legislating dumb behavior will only lead to not enough space or money to build the prisons needed to house more than half of our population

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