Legislating the Good Life

David Strom
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Posted: May 03, 2007 12:01 AM
Legislating the Good Life

One of the most persistent and wrongheaded notions held by many in the political and intellectual class is that nothing happens without someone planning and legislating it into existence.

This is a pervasive belief especially among liberals, but almost anyone who spends enough time around politicians succumbs to this fallacy. And from this misconception springs all sorts of stupidity and misery as the ruling class tries to engineer society and the universe into a state of perfection and bliss.

Want examples? Here in Minnesota the liberals took over the Legislature in last year’s landslide elections. And along with the billions of dollars in tax and spending increases they have come up with some spectacularly stupid but illuminating legislation.

My particular favorite is the proposed tax credit to plant a tree. The state will give you $100 to plant a tree. I am not making this up.

Minnesota’s State Legislature is going to reverse global climate change this way, and just plain make people better too! By paying people $100 to plant a tree. Really. Anyone want to guess the dollar cost per ton of carbon taken out of the atmosphere?

Of course the biggest problem with such a proposal is that somebody was stupid and arrogant enough to think of it in the first place. I guess it is pointless to tell you that literally billions of trees spring up spontaneously every year, or that any homeowner with a lawn and an oak tree is probably spending a not inconsiderable amount of effort pulling out all the spontaneously sprouting trees.

Trees don’t need lawmakers to grow. They do just fine on their own, and to the extent that we have a tree deficit, it has more to do with where they grow and what kind of trees we want, not how many might be growing.

The urge to tweak society and our environment is apparently too compelling to restrain, no matter how silly the results.

Here are some other gems:

There is the law to require seat belts in shopping carts; unfortunately, here in Minnesota we have yet to ban drinking and driving shopping carts!

Then there are the proposed grants to get friends and families together to read to children.

Another bill helps define how interior designers apply theories of human behavior and aesthetics.

Yet another proposal would give a judge the right to declare a price “unconscionable” during market disruptions, imposing fines on retailers charging the wrong price.

A bill has even been proposed to provide workers’ compensation for hurt feelings, sans any physical injury at all.

Of course, there are far too many stupid bills to list, and I honestly could drop all of these and replace them with equally stupid proposals. Believe me.

But the stupidity of liberals and their willingness to legislate about anything at all is not really the point.

What is really interesting is the dangerous mindset that underlies all this worthless and dangerous activity. Today’s liberal politicians take as their intellectual starting point a belief utterly at odds with the founding idea of our society: that government is best which governs least.

From about the time of John Locke through John Stuart Mill, the Anglo-American political and economic tradition was guided by the insight that the economy and society would best function and produce the most happiness if politics had the lightest possible impact on our lives.

Sure, some government was necessary, but only because without it rights and property would be left undefended; but in general human relations should be guided by free cooperative activity and trade.

Adam Smith showed how well this worked in the economic realm, and laid the intellectual foundation for the most prosperous societies in world history. The Founding Fathers used the same principles to describe and create the freest and most enduring Republic in history. The original Liberal principles were those enunciated by Locke, Smith, the Founders, and John Stuart Mill. Today’s ‘liberalism’ isn’t liberal in this sense at all.

The basic insight is pretty simple: government is much more likely to screw things up than improve them, except if things are already going to hell already as is the case with crime or war. So in general, leave things alone and let things get worked out naturally.

Far from requiring rational design, the good society would come about naturally if people are left to their own devices. And evidence continually shows how right this is.

Modern liberals, who have forgotten the meaning and value of liberty, now want to prescribe a rule or a policy for everything, including when and where trees are planted. In their view, the world is putty to be molded to their vision of the good. It is perfectible, and any defect in human relations, income distribution, the number or placement of trees, or even one’s emotional state is subject to a new law, regulation, or bureaucratic control.

It’s not the content of these laws or regulations that particularly matters, however stupid or not they may appear. It’s the fact that Americans have had their liberties ever more circumscribed. The left has been systematically undermining both the foundation of our basic humanity—the ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness as we see fit—and also undermining the ultimate foundation of our freedoms and prosperity here in America.

No government, no bureaucracy, and no group of intellectuals can ever come close to matching the ingenuity and creativity that a well-functioning voluntary market spurs. We simply are better off with less control and regulation, not just freer.

So remember, every time a liberal comes up to you with a plan, proposal, or even intriguing idea remind yourself: “that government is best which governs least.”