A first principle for politicians

Paul Jacob

2/10/2008 12:00:00 AM - Paul Jacob

First, do no harm.

It may not be part of the Hippocratic oath, as is often said, but it’s a good maxim anyways. Besides, Hippocrates did write something similar: “make a habit of two things — to help, or at least to do no harm.”

It’s a good bit of advice for people whose very job is prying into others’ lives. In medicine, one reason the profession isn’t overrun by busybodies and nuisances has been this injunction — and the fact that doctors are usually called in only at the patient’s request, and by contract.

Politicians don’t have any such built-in safeguards. I mean, the Constitution is supposed to take the place of a real contract, but for most politicians the document is, today, a dead letter.

So we could sure use a few wise words, an apophthegm, a gnome . . . for politicians to live by.

I’ve got one. It’s not in any way outré or unheard of. It’s already popular enough that we even have an acronym for it: MYOB.

Mind your own business.

If politicians — or even citizens, when in “political mode” as voters — realized that not all business is their business, maybe they wouldn’t wind up so often playing tyrant.

Or come out looking like fools.

Sometimes it’s hard to know which is worse: the tyranny or the stupendous folly.

For instance, a while back we raised eyebrows over the Big Brother-ish New York City policy of banning restaurants from using trans fat in their food. Now, I avoid trans fat; so do growing numbers of Americans — voluntarily.

But what business is it of the government?

Tell that to Mississippi Representatives W.T. Mayhall and John Read, Republicans, and Bobby Shows, Democrat. These solons tried hard to venture up from small-scale nannying. They introduced legislation to force restaurants to segregate potential customers. Had their House Bill 282 passed — instead of being crushed by the forces of common sense — the state of Mississippi would have forced restaurants to refuse to serve customers deemed by the health department to be obese.

Discrimination on the basis of race or gender or creed or even percentage of body fat is just wrong. Everybody already knows this.

Everybody, that is, but too many politicians. They somehow forgot that the freedom they are supposed to defend tells them that your obesity, or mine, is none of their business.

Certain common problems need governmental solutions. But not common-as-dirt problems — commonly shared problems. We share in the problem of crime. So we share in the burden of government. But we do not share, in the same way, the problem of corpulence. Everyone has his own cross to bear, and one of them might be a gut jutting out 13 inches beyond the belt line. That’s a problem. But my gut is mine, your gut is yours, and that is the way it should be.

Not knowing when to butt out can be a problem, sometimes, I’ll admit. And yet governments routinely side with some people against others, encouraging all of us to get far too uppity. And uppity people tend not to mind their own business.

Case in point: Dale and Spencer Bell, father and son in rural Arizona, started a restaurant called San Tan Flat. The government was involved from the get-go. They had to get a permit. And they got it. OK so far — but it goes further.

Now, if you watched Drew Carey’s reason.tv segment on this, you know the story. One neighbor adjacent to the establishment expressed grave concern. He raised objections, and after the permit for the place was given, he asked the Bells if they could be a little courteous to his beekeeping biz, not be too loud, shine too many lights, etc.

So the restaurant goes up, and country music and outdoor barbecues hit the atmosphere, and . . . the neighbor talking in front of reason.tv’s cameras was just fine with it all. The impact was much less than he feared. And he liked having a restaurant in the area.

But someone didn’t. Someone complained about the noise. And the county council got involved.

They set a noise standard more stringent than for anyone else in the county. And they went a step further. The local politicians said the restaurant must not do one thing, it must not allow dancing.

But, it turns out, people like to dance. Especially at a neat outdoors joint like San Tan Flat.

County officials conducted what they called the longest “code compliance hearing” in the county’s history to decide how much the fine should be. Result? They want to fine San Tan $5,000 a day for letting customers dance.

Dale Bell is fighting it. If people want to dance, let them dance. That’s his motto.

And, for the life of me I can’t see how that shouldn’t be the local government’s motto. Dancing may offend some and, frankly, I do not want to watch most people dance. But those aren’t real problems. Anti-dancing puritans don’t need to enter the walled outdoor environs of the San Tan Flat Restaurant, and I can shade my eyes from the jigglings of the overweight Mississippian.

I only need to mind my own business. Which is what the local government should be doing, too.

But shouldn’t we use government to protect ourselves from nuisances?

Well, I guess so. Within limits. I mean, slippery slope: give politicians and busybodies a say in what you may do on your property, and pretty soon there’s not much you can do on your property.

Take merry ol’ England. Once a place of freedom, now it appears to be overrun by nosey police and tyrannical regulators.

Consider, in particular, building permit requirements that go so far as to micromanage home style and placement. And consider what Robert Fidler decided to do to get around those laws. Before building on his property, he erected massive, 40-foot high haystacks.

The haystacks, covered with tarps and old tires, were ugly.

Yet no one complained.

The people near Honeycrock Farm, Salfords, Redhill, Surrey, knew that Robert Fidler was building something behind his haystacks. But, maybe because they were, at heart, good British people, they said nothing.

But what Fidler had built behind the stacks of hay was a mock Tudor mansion, complete with cannons and turrets and such.

Tastes differ as to its beauty, but hey: it was a lot better than hay.

After building it for two years, he and his family lived in it for four. Without telling anybody.

And then Fidler tore down the haystacks.

And came trouble.

Fidler thought that he had gotten around the local planning laws by living in his structure for four years without complaint. Too bad, then, that the Reigate and Banstead Council says that rule is void — because nobody had been given a chance to see it.

They had seen ugly haystacks, instead. For six years.

Now, you probably thought that zoning laws and building codes were there to protect neighbors. But the neighbors expressed no complaints about ugly haystacks under blue tarp. A nice house in olden style? Why complain about that?

Well, some did. Mainly petty complaints, of the “Why shouldn’t Fidler have to go through the same Kafkaesque nightmare we did?” variety.

I guess they didn’t appreciate the cleverness of the ploy.

Not so clever, however, that Fidler has much chance of being allowed to keep his house. Too bad.

Fidler’s gambit proved something about zoning and building-permission laws. Much of it is just prejudice and intolerance and busybodyism. If a community could tolerate ugly haystacks, it can tolerate a mock-Tudor mansion. And should.

And if haystacks covered with blue tarpaulin and old car tires meet the muster of law and public opinion, then any old ramshackle house — or modernist monstrosity — you select to build should be tolerated, too.

Look, I don’t reach for my spritzer if you go to the 7-Eleven in dirty cut-offs and two-days late on a shower. And I don’t expect you to take out your comb and clippers when you see my latest haircut. The personal courtesies we extend each other should be more broadly honored.

And forced on politicians.

Really, we’ll all get along much better when we mind our own business.