Human Events Blog

The legislative impulse

Observing the current gun control and debt-ceiling debates makes me wonder: why do we always feel we need boatloads of new legislation to deal with every problem?

It’s obvious enough why we are told that a mountain of new laws are needed.  The people who make the law derive great power from its perpetual expansion.  Even if the possibility of passing a new law is remote, politicians often gain credit for good intentions by calling for one.  “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” as one of the first commandments of the Obama era had it.

The legislative impulse is also very media-friendly, because it gives the press something to talk about.  “Big New Problem Prompts Big New Solution From Washington” is a perennial favorite among headline writers.  “Top Politicians Express Confidence That People Can Work Out Their Own Problems” is much less appealing.  “News” is composed of actions and responses.  Naturally, reporters cluster around the response factories located at the White House and Capitol Hill.

The real question is, why do We the People reflexively accept the notion that new laws – and the corresponding loss of individual liberty – are the solution to every problem?  Why are we so eager to jump aboard the perpetual-motion government engine?

Every law is, by definition, a reduction in personal liberty.  It defines something you are not allowed to do any more – or, more ominously in the current political climate, something you are compelled to do.  Freedom is a limited resource.  Its consumption by government is exactly the sort of “zero-sum game” that politicians falsely portray the economy as.  But too many people think nothing of giving their liberty away, in return for promised “security” of dubious value.  Worse, they don’t even view this as an even transaction any more.  We are reduced to defending what the government wants to take, and fumbling for adequate reasons to justify our continued ownership.  We’re not bargaining with the State for security; we are defendants, forever on trial, and the jury is made up of those who either don’t care about whatever aspect of our liberty sits in the dock, or are actively hostile to it.

A thousand gun control laws have not brought public safety.  A thousand vows of fiscal responsibility from Washington have been broken.  Why do we think one more set of restrictions, or one more package of tax increases, will finally do the trick?  Why don’t we insist more strongly on fidelity to the laws that already exist?  We now face the absurdity of a central government without a budget demanding the release of its debt limits.  All pretense of the State honoring the laws that bind it have been dissolved; the notion of formally abandoning the Constitution has been openly discussed.  But the “solution” to every problem takes the form of more laws binding the people.

This has the happy benefit to the ruling class of diminishing their sense of responsibility and accountability.  The problem is always an insufficiently complicated system, rather than their lack of competence at administering the system.  In earlier times, such incompetence would have been a career-ending accusation; now it’s a defense.  The people at the top are never at fault for their inability to hold up the government’s end of our titanic body of law.  Instead, they claim they need even more laws, and even more public resources, to set things right.

It’s a rigged game, and we’re absolutely buried under the results.  Our ever-growing body of law removes the burden of honoring its side of the social contract from the State.  When we agree that the solution to every problem is the further attenuation of liberty, we are conceding that everything is our fault, never the State’s.  Our unruly disobedience and invalid ambitions have produced every crisis, and we are forever in need of further taming.  And we allow the political class to divide us into groups, so that blame can be concentrated on the unpopular, while the rest of us view the State as our partner in achieving some triumph over them.  You may not be a “criminal” today, but the odds are good that many of your fellow citizens think you should be.

We must reverse this process, if we would reclaim our liberty, and rescue the State from the impending collapse its appetites have brought upon it.  The first step involves asserting our confidence, and rejecting the notion that we are a deeply flawed people, which the State must endlessly labor to beat into shape.

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