The Next Time You’re in New Hampshire

HILLSDALE, MI.  Live a little.  Unbuckle your seat belt.  It’s the only state left where you can “un-click it and not ticket.”  The other 49 have either primary or secondary seat belt laws.  “Secondary” means that the gendarmes cannot pull you over only for failure to buckle; they can cite you for not wearing the device, but only if you have committed another offense first.  “Primary” means they can stop you if they suspect you are not buckled up (they don’t have to have clear visual proof, since so many of today’s cars have tinted glass that would make it hard for the officer to be sure) and ticket you for no other reason.

New Hampshire has held out so far, but the pressure has been on since 2007, put on by the Feds and emigrants from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts.  The good citizens of the Granite State probably know they would have to remove their slogan (see above) from their license plates if they cave.

Having just had imposed by Congress what is arguably the worst single piece of legislation in the history of the republic, perhaps it is time to take a moment to reflect on what law is all about, using seat belt law as example because it 1) affects all of us, 2) is in most cases rather low on the liberty and limits laundry list, and 3) shows exactly how governments tend to make bad laws worse.

Restraint devices in transportation vehicles go back a long way.  I suspect that somebody suggested them for war chariots, but the serious era of vehicular restraint begins in the 1950s, when almost no drivers thought that belts were a good idea.  The aftermath of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed in the 60s produced Nader buzzers, those little screamers that went off a few seconds down the road if you failed to buckle up.  We all learned to disable them within minutes of buying a new car.  But Nader and his Raiders made safety a Serious Matter.  When something becomes serious in a democracy, those-who-will-do-us-good take notice, and inevitably start a program of education that leads to legislation that leads to coercion.

Tocqueville noticed in the 1830s that in a democracy, “laws are almost always defective or unreasonable.”  With a few exceptions, such has always been true under any form of government.  Tocqueville again: “The whole art of the legislator consists in discerning well and in advance these natural inclinations of human societies in order to know when one must aid the efforts of citizens and when it would rather be necessary to slow them down.”  The problem is, this requires considerable prudence, which democracies are not noted for, and it also assumes that legislators understand that there are indeed “natural inclinations of human societies,” or, more basically, that there is such a thing as human nature. Troublesome things aside, Tocqueville recognized that the legislator’s biggest problem is doing good; “that by wanting to improve everything around him, he will finally degrade himself (my emphasis).”

Many people since Aristotle have been convinced that good law can improve morality in the polis.  While that may be true (and it is not my task here to prove or disprove it), it should be beyond dispute that bad law, like bad ideas, can have bad consequences.  Bad law often leads to tyranny.  Bad law erodes respect for law in general.  Even good law cannot take the place of what Tocqueville calls “mores,” and bad law that tries to replace what should be the responsibilities of the church and the family also weakens them.

We might start with the definition of a bad law by saying that any law that is 2700 pages long cannot by definition be a good law.  But, in practical terms, a working definition of a bad law is one that runs counter to the clearly accepted wisdom of the community, one that cannot be enforced except by extreme measures, or one that drastically changes existing arrangements for the sake of an anticipated goal.

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