The self-inflicted wounds of knee-jerk regulation

Howard Anglin Contributor
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A friend recently sent me a photograph that neatly sums up the infantilization of the West during the last half-century.  It was taken in 1941, at the height of the Blitz, the German aerial assault that dropped millions of incendiaries and tens of thousands of tons of bombs on British cities from Plymouth to Sheffield.  The nightly bombings killed 40,000 civilians and, in London alone, hit more than a million buildings.  The scale of destruction is almost unthinkable in modern Britain or America.

And yet, in this photograph, three men stand amidst the wreckage of the Holland House library, neatly dressed and behatted, perusing the volumes that still fill the carved wooden bookshelves.  The men appear unperturbed by the rubble and charred beams piled around them or the sunlight streaming through where the roof had been.  The image is a testament to a life-goes-on-so-mustn’t-grumble-and-keep-your-chin-up spirit wholly absent in our governments today.

Within 48 hours of the latest thwarted terrorist attack, the TSA had imposed, repealed and amended a barrage of half-baked “security” measures: carry-on baggage was eliminated (though diaper bags and musical instruments, potentially as capacious, would be allowed); passengers could no longer leave their seats during the last hour of a flight (Why one hour? Because it’s a nice round number?); computers and books on laps were banned; blankets and pillows removed; in-flight entertainment shut off.

Of course, any fool (and, from the evidence of the Shoe Bomber and the Nigerian nutter who tried to ignite his underpants on Christmas, that appears to include most would-be terrorists) could have told you the new rules are no impediment to serious mischief.  That objection misses the point.  As with most government measures, the important thing was to be seen to be doing something—anything—to justify the lumbering bureaucracy that menaces every aspect of modern life.

If this knee-jerk approach to policymaking were responsible for nothing worse than the pointless harassment of airline passengers, it would be regrettable.  Unfortunately, by the standards of the federal government, travelers got off easy.

In 2002, Congress responded to the Enron, Tyco and WorldCom accounting scandals with the Sarbanes-Oxley act, imposing onerous new reporting requirements on public companies.  It hardly mattered that Sarbanes-Oxley could not prevent the deliberate deceptions that brought down those companies, or that the new regulations increased the compliance costs of blameless American public companies by 130%, drove IPOs from the NYSE to the London Stock Exchange and cost American industry as much as $200 billion over the last eight years.  Congress was on the job!

Less high profile was Congress’s reaction to the news that some toys from China contained lead paint (which made them about as safe as the lead soldiers my father played with in the 1950s, but I digress).  In a self-righteous flurry of concern for the kiddies, the good men and women of Congress enacted the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), which required strict testing of products intended for use by children.  Henceforth all clothing, diapers, video games, bicycle tires and even scouting badges would be tested for lead – at the manufacturers expense, of course – and Goodwill stores were threatened if they sold non-compliant secondhand board games.

CPSIA was a body blow to small toy companies and craftsmen.  As highlighted by Walter Olson in Forbes, one company was quoted a $24,000 testing charge for a hitherto harmless children’s telescope that generated only $32,000 a year in sales.  And it cost a woman who sold handmade sweaters $1,000 to test each size and style of sweater.  Change the type of clasps or size and a new round of tests would be required.  I suppose we should be grateful Congress temporarily delayed the effectiveness of the new rules and spared the mittens Granny knitted little Johnny for Christmas.

These overreactions are sometimes excused as overzealous but well intentioned safety measures or quick fixes in an emergency.  But the persistence of knee-jerk regulation coupled with the government’s reluctance to repeal measures it initially hailed as necessary and urgent means the price of Congress’s good intentions is that, year by year and crisis by crisis, Americans are sold further into debt and regulatory bondage.

I would like to think that the men in that 1941 photograph would not have meekly removed their shoes to be X-rayed or stowed their books and twiddled their thumbs for the last hour of a flight on the say-so of some cringing TSA apparatchik.  Though they faced much greater immediate and long-term threats than we do, they accepted that risk was part of life and knew that a free society only undermines itself when it succumbs to fear and curtails its own liberties.  We, their children and grandchildren, however, will passively do what we are told like the good wards of the State we have become.

Howard Anglin is a lawyer and sometime political advisor and writer living in Washington, DC.  He has written on international law, U.S. constitutional law, politics, literature, food and wine for publications including National Review, The American Conservative, The Salisbury Review (London), the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen, though he saves his best writing for email.