First rule of good leadership: Don’t give a command you know won’t be obeyed.
First rule of bad governance: pass a law if it has good intention or purpose, without worrying whether it can be carried out or not, and without considering its potential side effects.
In one of my favorite science fiction books, one of my favorite characters gave the above primary rule of good leadership (I’m sure it comes from some other source originally – I’m just citing where I first learned it – and probably paraphrasing it badly).
Due to a recent, very Byzantine Facebook conversation with a friend (who has very different views than I do), I came up with the above first rule of bad governance.
Besides not getting that friend to address the initial question raised – which was the whole point of my original post – I got the following interesting comment about government legislation:
“When (do) I choose to support a law or not” I determine if it has good intention or purpose. I won’t worry about whether or not if it can (be carried) out. Because I believe it will shine if it is gold. May(be) not ten years, but it will be 50 years or 100 years, as long as the timing needs.”
I don’t want to classify the person who made the comment, but let me say that the comment itself sounds very liberal, showing the sort of compassion that liberals display, their concern for other people, and always intending to do go. It sounds so right – except for its total disregards for actual results or real individuals.
Let me give an interesting historical example, one that I would have agreed with, from the above quote’s perspective, if I had lived in the early 20th century – Prohibition.
What was the good intention or purpose of prohibition? It was to get rid of the evils of drunkenness, the broken and abusive families of men who spent their wages on drink rather than feeding their families, to rescue the homeless winos on the city streets and make them productive citizens.
What was the actual result? General histories would have us believe that it was unsuccessful and unpopular, which led to its eventual repeal. That would be an inaccurate statement. Prohibition actually achieved many of its original goals, and changed the drinking culture of our society.
Annual per capita consumption of alcohol dropped from 2.6 gallons to 1.2 gallons pre to post prohibition, and took until the 60s to reach its pre-prohibition levels. Missions in many cities closed because of the lack of homeless to be served. Death rates from cirrhosis of the liver, and hospitalizations from alcoholic psychosis dropped. The entire culture of the male saloon (see the movie the Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, for a sample of that) dropped out of the culture, giving room for the committed family man.
Basically, it achieved everything it intended, and actually had large popular support, even up until its repeal and after. But it also had several unintended side effects.
For starters, when prohibition was passed, the amendment was worded generally, and given to congress to define what the intended strength of the amendment was. When the Volstead Act was passed, which created the enforcement portion of the act, the definition of “intoxicating liquors” and the exclusion for medicinal and religious purposes, were much stricter than people had intended. Many people did not expect weak beers to be included in the prohibition, for example.
Another side effect was government revenues. At the time New York State received 75% of its tax revenues off alcohol, similar to other states, which experienced deficit issues and the necessary shifting of taxes. It was this revenue issue in the middle of the depression, rather than significant dislike for prohibition itself, that led to eventual repeal.
Prohibition called for “concurrent” enforcement of prohibition. Federal assumptions were that the States would carry the burden of the enforcement expense. Instead many states repealed their prohibition laws, leaving the full burden on the federal government.
The law drastically extended the reach of federal authority into the lives of the American people. It overburdened police, courts and the penal system, which were inadequately funded for the task, as noted above. The revenue it did create was the black-market revenue of the speakeasy that fueled organized crime.
While the male saloon was wiped off the map, the speakeasy actually brought men and women together to drink, since there wasn’t the same social stigma to their being there as in the saloon.
While solving certain health issues, it also created others. With alcohol production no longer regulated, people ended up drinking dangerous wood alcohol unawares, leading to blindness and death. People who did have alcohol issues also had no place to go for help, since drinking was illegal.
I think I’ve drifted a bit from where I intended, but hopefully someone can see my point. Whether you agree with a proposed law or not, as in prohibition, it is a good idea to know what you really intend, and whether the law is properly designed to do it.
You need to think about the big picture and try to envision as many possible “unintended” side effects as possible. You need to take an engineer’s perspective in trying to identify all the forces at work before building a law that collapses under its own weight (or collapses people under its weight).
Passing a law to “find out what is in it”, was dangerous in the days of prohibition, and is still dangerous today. Passing an amendment like prohibition that gave Congress the right to interpret what it meant made a lot of people unhappy when Volstead created his strict interpretation in the Volstead Act. Today Congress passes generally worded laws that allow the bureaucracy to legislate to their whim as they create the related regulations.
That’s my point, poorly stated. Now, if you were at all intrigued by my blog, let me suggest another, more fun one by Sarah Hoyt: Calvin Ball Constitution.