Paul Jacob

Not long ago I reported on an even more absurd case, in Shreveport, Louisiana. There, the police chief cooked up this hare-brained idea of holding gas station employees and owners criminally liable in cases where drivers drive away without paying.

I can almost hear your incredulity. What? Is? Going? On? In? Shreveport?

Well, you see, the chief got the town council to require station attendants to make their customers pre-pay. If they don’t, and the driver drives off without paying, then the attendant is also a criminal!

This sort of regulation of everyday life is all too common. The basic idea is to scribble out a criminal code to make it easy for law enforcement. To you and me, prepaying for fuel is cumbersome. We rarely know how much gas we need beforehand. That is, we usually want to fill the tank, not just put “ten dollars” in. This simple fact of consumer preference, on the other hand, doesn’t mean anything to certain bureaucratically minded police chiefs. Or politicians. For them, the purpose of citizens is to obey the law whatever the law is.

Nonsense, of course. We fought a revolution to stop such nonsense. But it keeps coming back up.

Of course, some of today’s prosecutorial overkill qualifies more as vengeance than anything else. When the city of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, sent Jennifer Reisinger a cease-and-desist letter for her linking to the city government’s website on her own website, without one ounce of a good reason. Linking is the whole purpose of the Web, and Ms. Reisinger, a political activist, had every reason and justification for putting up a mere link to the city’s Web address.

But the city went ahead with the letter. Why? Because Ms. Reisinger was a pest. She had tried to get Sheboygan’s mayor, Juan Perez, recalled. For this activism, she was attacked by her own government. With a nasty, threatening letter.

So what are we to make of stories like this?

Well, I have a handy explanation: Power corrupts. We give police power over us, and we give politicians and prosecutors an even higher-order power. Why? To defend our rights. The police are vitally necessary. So are judges and (most of?) the rest. But, too often, they tend to forget our rights and instead look upon their power as something to be maximized. Rights? Schmights!

What we wind up with is a petty police state, haphazard and aggravating more often than not. Kafkaesque, sometimes. Certainly, the opposite of my favorite lawman, Andy Taylor.

Now, Kafka never watched The Andy Griffith Show. It wasn’t high art, or black comedy, so I’ve no sure idea what Kafka would have thought of it. But Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry never used his toughness in a bullying or bureaucratic way. He was respectful of the public, interpreting both the rules and his own discretion with a heavy dose of common sense.

Unlike modern America, Mayberry was never Kafkaesque. If searching about for standards, better to reach into the oeuvre of Andy than of Franz. Our enforcement culture sure needs something.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.