Common Sense: The antidote to too much government

Conservatives and libertarians are constantly railing against government intervention in the lives of citizens. As such, they are often accused by the left of hating all forms of government and seeking to deregulate everything to the point where corporations can take over the country and rob and enslave the citizenry.

Nothing could be farther than the truth. Conservatives understand a successful nation requires a functioning government with a strong rule of law. Without a well functioning government a society devolves into chaos and anarchy. Anarchy in turn usually leads to the rise of a strongman or powerful groups who take control and rule with an iron fist. (See Haiti and the return of Baby Doc or Mexico or Post Soviet Russia) It is not government per-se that conservatives despise; it’s pernicious, inefficient, ineffective and suffocating government.

A husband and wife in Houston who have spent the last year feeding the homeless is feeling the effects of just such a government right now. The city’s Health and Human Services department recently decided to shut the couple down for a lack of permit. Indeed, even the head of a local homeless advocacy group supported the action: “Even though their intentions are good, they ran into ordinances that are designed to protect the public.”

For the couple, Bobby and Amanda Herring, the idea of getting the necessary permits and ensuring that the food (which was often donated by local restaurants or cooked by Amanda in their home) was prepared in “a certified kitchen with a certified food manager” was simply not possible. Their only choice was to work with other properly certified or permitted groups or cease and desist. As of this week the pair were still trying to find a solution.

A spokesman for the HHS stated that the regulations in question are all the more essential in the case of the homeless, because “poor people are the most vulnerable to food borne illness and also are the least likely to have access to health care.” So what you have is the government protecting the homeless from the hypothetical danger posed by potentially bad food by imposing the very real condition of taking food away from them. Brilliant.

This episode of course is far from unique. Last summer saw pint sized entrepreneurs in Portland and San Francisco get their lemonade stands shut down for not having the necessary licenses. Nor is it just food. Last week a New Jersey legislator proposed a law requiring registration and license plates for all bicycles – for a fee of course – to protect the elderly from future Lance Armstrongs.

These are perfect examples of bureaucrats fundamentally misunderstanding the function of government. The government cannot and should not try to protect citizens from every possible danger that exists. Why? Simply put, because the number of dangers are infinite. The phrase that comes to mind, if only because its opposite seems to hold sway in the United States today, is “That government is best which governs least.” The phrase, which can be found in Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, is sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Payne. Regardless of the phrase’s provenance, it seems to be the perfect paradigm for the problems that we face today. Dangers are everywhere and regardless of how many regulations government bureaucrats foist upon the citizenry, most of those dangers will still exist. Bureaucrats are simply not capable of protecting us from all of them, and they should not try. Interestingly, at the very time the governments of Houston, Portland and San Francisco are bullying Good Samaritans and budding entrepreneurs, it appears that Al Qaeda is interested in poising the food in restaurants, one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country.

Conservatives do not argue that there should be no government or regulation, merely that government should be limited and effective in the pursuits it undertakes. The question becomes, what fills the void? Common sense: Sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like. i.e. things that people figure out through experience, by taking risks, by failing, by watching what goes on around them, from understanding how things function and understanding that actions have consequences. That is the one thing that cannot be legislated, and indeed is something that can actually be regulated out of existence.

Perhaps there is no better example of government action doing just that than the Ft. Hood shooting in early 2010. Common sense would have dictated that a military officer publicly expressing his sympathy for jihadists and the need to kill innocents in the name of Allah would at a minimum be evaluated and had his access to military facilities limited. Instead, officers within the chain of command and others who closely interacted with Major Hassan bit their tongues because of the very real fear of being accused of racism or prejudice and as a result having their careers destroyed. More importantly I suspect, those officers felt confident (again with good reason) that even had they spoken up, nothing would have been done.

In the case of the recent shooting in Tucson, the fact that the shooter purchased his gun legally does not suggest more gun legislation is necessary. Laws already exist to prohibit the mentally unstable from purchasing weapons, and Loughner was certainly that. One question might be: did privacy or civil rights laws keep him from being evaluated and or labeled as such?

The New Year presents conservatives with a moment of opportunity. The GOP has control of the U.S. House, 29 Governor’s mansions and 58 out of the 99 state legislative chambers. Many of the men and women who hold those seats can thank conservatives and Tea Party organizations across the country. If 2012 is going to be another step in the rollback of the progressive agenda smothering the country, conservatives (either via the GOP or over its carcass) will have to stand up and do battle against the perpetually growing bodies of legislation and regulation that effect governments across the country.

Doing so not only requires demonstrating the absurdity of laws already on the books, but at the same time making the argument that government cannot solve every problem any American might ever encounter. Common sense is a muscle. The less it is used the more it atrophies. The more it’s used the stronger it becomes. If the President is so keen on providing benefits to the citizenry, perhaps he can pay for a magical gym membership where members can work on their common sense skills between bench press sets. Now that’s a social program worth paying for.