“Which is better,” Boston clergyman Mather Byles is reputed to have asked, “to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?”
Many loyalists and fence sitters during the very early days of the American Revolution pondered that very point. It did not mean they were in love with George III by any stretch of the imagination but only that they were just as wary of homegrown despots.
In our present predicament, it seems we have both – a tyrant in the White House and a multitude just down the road in our local courthouses. We must ever be mindful that local governments can oppress the rights of citizens just as effectively as Washington, DC.
The notion of government paternalism has been gaining more and more steam since the late 19th century, and can be defined as “a policy or practice of treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities.”
Though we tend to think of Washington and its massive welfare state, paternalism is, in fact, stronger at the local level than anywhere else. Zoning ordinances, eminent domain, police power, and now food control are the instruments most prone to abuse by local authorities.
In California, the state is proposing a law to ban texting and biking, while some communities are actually fining people for texting and walking. Other communities around the country are actually placing signs on the sidewalk that read “Look Up,” in order to remind those texting while walking that they should not do so.
A Burnsville, Minnesota resident, Mitch Faber, was arrested, shackled, and carted off to jail for the unthinkable crime of not properly putting vinyl siding on his own house, in violation of building codes. He was threatened with 30 days in jail it he did not complete the project in accordance with the law.
The city of Norfolk, Virginia is now in the process of using eminent domain to seize a radio company, which has been in the city for 78 years, and hand over the land to a local university.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed a ban on sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces, affecting restaurants, concession stands, and other venues. Said Mayor Bloomberg, “We’re simply forcing you to understand.” Not to be outdone, the NYC Board of Health, appointed by Mr. Bloomberg, now wants to push ahead with more draconian regulations, for such harmful products as movie popcorn and milk-based drinks.
The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts is proposing a ban on soft drinks at all restaurants. And local officials across the nation have begun a campaign to shut down lemonade stands and bake sales.
When they are not shutting down children’s lemonade stands, police officers in cities across America are arresting people for exercising their first amendment rights to film police actions or, as they did recently in Dallas, Texas, for wearing a helmet cam on a bike. What is it that they don’t want us to see?
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, five police officers savagely beat a man for carrying a concealed handgun. The only problem was Zachary King had a permit to do just that. Yet he was taken to jail anyway, charged with obstructing the legal process, whatever that means.
It seems the government believes we really are children in need of full time assistance, lest we injure ourselves in our state of ignorance. The government is doing these things, they say, in order to protect us. As the tyrant Bloomberg said, “If government’s purpose isn’t to improve the health and longevity of its citizens, I don’t know what its purpose is.”
But conservatives have a different role for the government, enunciated beautifully by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address in 1801, where he argued for “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”
The problem is we have too many laws and regulations, making it relatively easy for the government to arrest you at the slightest whim. At last count, the Federal Register amounted to more than 160,000 pages; state governments account for thousands more, and local governments more still.
Just because our Founders decreed that we are a nation of laws, and not men, does not mean we must pass laws year after year that threaten the liberty of the people. Instead of passing more laws, its time for a national campaign to urge repeal of many laws already on the books. As Barry Goldwater said in Conscience of a Conservative, “My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” That should be the criteria for anyone seeking public office today.
This column was published in the Laurel Leader Call (Laurel, MS) on Tuesday, July 17, 2012.