A point about pointless laws

Posted: Aug 02, 2001 12:00 AM
Opinion journalism is one of the few businesses where the customers not only seek to get you fired as a matter of course, but also think they're doing you a favor by keeping you in the loop as they try to do it. As a case in point: A reader forwarded me a copy of a letter she wrote to her local paper: "Dear Editor, Surely The Express Times can do better for a op-ed columnist than Jonah Goldberg. In the last few weeks we've been treated to a bigoted rant against the French and an argument for drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife preserve. ... Now we have a column supporting parents who leave their children to swelter to death in locked cars on hot days. I can only imagine what's coming next." Now, I'm used to critical feedback. Heck, I'm used to people hoping that I get a half-starved wolverine sewed into my lower torso. But what annoys me about this and the scores of other letters I've gotten on the subject is the notion that just because I am opposed to a law, I am therefore in favor of whatever that law was intended to prevent. As a conservative, this may be my single biggest peeve. For example, this presumably nice woman and her fellow travelers believe that I "support" parents who kill their children in a particularly hideous way. This is fantasy. The fact is that I'm opposed to the burgeoning effort to make leaving your kid in a car a (ital) crime (end ital). The push for such legislation across the country is aimed at preventing an infinitesimally small percentage of tragedies (120 since 1996) involving babies left in the back seats of cars. I fully support laws against killing your child on purpose. Of course, we already have such laws. In fact, as a typically heartless "lock-em up" conservative, I think all of those laws should be made tougher and more draconian. But laws designed to prevent tragic accidents are often what the Germans call a schlimmbesserung, or a so-called improvement that makes things worse. Passing a law outlawing all parents from leaving their kid in the back seat of their car, just to prevent a handful of stupid mistakes, sounds like a schlimmbesserung if I ever heard of one. Suddenly, police who prevent more frequent tragedies would now spend some fraction of their time looking for kids in empty cars. Parents might choose to leave their kids unattended at home rather than bring them to the supermarket, etc. Regardless, I already wrote a column about all that. Here's my real gripe: the idea that opposing such laws makes me "pro-dead baby." I'd probably be opposed to a law that would make it illegal for airplane pilots to crash their planes, but I bet there are people out there who'd say that makes me "pro-plane crash." In fact, conservatives like me face such charges constantly. Because I oppose racial preferences, I'm accused of being a racist or in favor of Jim Crow. If I'm against subsidies for "artists" to do strange things with their bodies, I'm in favor of censorship. Because I oppose hate-crimes legislation, I'm told, I also approve of gay bashing and cross burning. My first major lesson in this phenomenon came when I was a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute at the time "The Bell Curve" was first published. Charles Murray, the co-author of the book, an AEI scholar (and now a friend of mine), was treated to a shellacking in the national press that has not been replicated since. Television networks introduced special segments by showing clips of Hitler and mobs sieg-heiling at Nuremberg rallies. Murray was called a eugenicist and fascist in code - and in plain language - a thousand times over. The media immediately assumed he favored Jim Crow, the Nuremberg laws and concentration camps. I didn't agree with everything in his very complicated book, but that's not the point. The point is that Murray's solution to almost every social problem is to reduce the role, size and scope of government involvement. He believes in his bones that the government doesn't have the moral authority to collect your garbage. But in the house of mirrors that is contemporary liberalism, Murray was depicted as favoring government involvement on a massive and evil scale. Let me just say this one time: The whole mission of conservatism is to limit the role of government in order to expand the freedom of individuals, communities and local institutions to make life better. We do not sit around twirling our thin mustaches thinking of ways to ensure that bad things happen to babies - or women, blacks, gays or puppies. That isn't our motivation. Indeed, the reader quoted above says, "I can only imagine what's coming next." And on that point we can agree. It's all in her imagination.