Busybody politicians, get off our backs

John Stossel

9/6/2006 12:01:00 AM - John Stossel

If you want to buy or sell foie gras in a Chicago restaurant, you'll have to break the law. Not that this stops anyone. Restaurants all over Chicago sell the French delicacy -- even restaurants that never sold it before. They openly thumb their noses at the new law.

City officials say cracking down on foie gras pushers won't be a high priority. But the law is on the books, ready whenever the authorities want to harass some troublesome restaurateur. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, "The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be."

In this case the politicians are catering to the animal-rights lobby, which complains that geese and ducks are force-fed to make the fattened-liver paste. (The American Veterinary Medical Association investigated the process and has abstained from condemning it.)

Political leaders say they work hard to advance the general welfare. What they really do is help vocal and well-organized special interests.

Sometimes I think the type of people who run for office are the most dangerous people. Most of us want to run our own lives, or help people by offering them charity, or selling them things. The people who want to run other people's lives are . . . different. In pursuit of their vision of the perfect world, they justify even absurd restrictions on our freedom. For example:

In Belton, Mo., it is illegal to throw a snowball.

In New Jersey and Oregon, it is illegal to pump your own gas.

In Kern County, Calif., it is illegal to play bingo while drunk. In Illinois, it is against the law to hunt bullfrogs with a firearm.

In Massachusetts, it's illegal to deface a milk carton.

In Fairfax, Va., the use of pogo sticks is outlawed on city buses. In Palm Harbor, Fla., it is illegal to have an artificial lawn.

Some of these silly laws are old, but dumb as they are, they are still on the books. The bureaucrats' bad ideas never go away. They don't repeal old laws; they just pass new ones.

Plan on painting your porch on your day off? Don't do it in Spring Hill, Tenn. The city council banned any "alteration or repair of any building" in a residential neighborhood on Sundays, even do-it-yourself work.

The mayor of the tiny community of Friendship Heights, Md., said he had to protect his citizens from cigarette smoke. So several years ago, he got his town to pass the most stringent anti-smoking law in America. It banned cigarette smoke not just in restaurants, bars, and offices, but outdoors, too.

The mayor is a doctor who should have known that only the flimsiest of data suggests secondhand smoke hurts people. The suggestion of slight risk came from studies of people who lived with smokers, and were exposed to lots of secondhand smoke at home and in cars. The idea that outdoor cigarette smoke is a meaningful health risk is silly. Granted, secondhand smoke is a nuisance. But so are many other things.

But the mayor was a zealot, and Friendship Heights banned smoking anywhere on city property, which meant no smoking on the sidewalks, the streets or the parks.

I said to Mayor Alfred Muller, "You're another of these busybody politicians who want to tell other people how to live their lives." He replied, "Well, we're elected to promote the general welfare, and this is part of the general welfare."

The mayor seemed very sincere, and the citizens of Friendship Heights felt protected by his concern. However, shortly after I interviewed him, he had to register as a sex offender after touching a 14-year-old boy's genitals in a restroom at Washington National Cathedral. The mayor got probation, and the village council repealed his law. Now we finally know what it takes to get a law repealed.

The people who have the biggest passion for restricting other people's behavior are the very people we should worry about most. Unfortunately, they keep running for office.