Thursday, April 5, 2012

There Ought to Be a Law

Back in March there was a news story about a man named Mitch Faber who was jailed on account of not having siding on his home. The details of the story are here.

In one sense, the story is outrageous. Yes the man's house was in dire need of exterior repairs for almost four years, and yes it could be argued that the condition of his house might affect surrounding property values, but these things pale in comparison to the fact that someone was arrested and taken to jail for keeping his house in a condition the government deemed unacceptable. What Mr. Faber did (or did not do) was considered criminally offensive enough to warrant not only locking him up, but making him wear a monitoring device upon his release.

In a different sense, the story is enlightening. It's a perfect example to highlight what can happen every time a law goes into effect. Laws are not suggestions; they're orders, backed up with threats of violence. You either do what it says, or you'll be made to pay a heavy fine, or men with guns come to take you away. Every single law and statute has this property.

I understand the intent here. Laws are needed to keep order. I don't advocate lawlessness; many laws are worth being backed up by force, such as those that protect property rights and prevent theft or aggression between people. But with some things (many, I would argue), it's just not worth pointing a gun in someone's back to get them done. The law that put Mitch Faber in handcuffs for the way his house looked is one such example.

When people say, "There ought to be a law," what they're really saying is, "This is potentially worth police resources, court time, tax dollars, and prison space." A lot of people don't realize this when they run to the government for solutions to problems they wish would go away but are too lazy to deal with themselves, but it's true. In this context, it's entirely predictable (however absurd) that someone could be taken to jail for not repairing his home's fa├žade. That's what laws do, for better or worse, and it's equally true for issues big and small.*

What would I have done in the case of Mitch Faber? I really don't know....but I do know that I wouldn't have gotten the police involved, and I wouldn't want my taxes funding any part of what happened. Maybe there's an objectively better answer, maybe not- but even if the only two options were 1. getting the cops and courts involved or 2. doing absolutely nothing and putting up with it, I'd have opted for the latter. Because I understand that I wouldn't want that kind of treatment brought down on me, I'd resist subjecting even my most hated neighbors to it. Would that we all thought that way.

*For one popular example, take the national healthcare law. Looking past the high-sounding intentions (even if you're in favor of it), it says to Americans: You're either going to buy health insurance or you're going to go to prison. Do not all government programs come with this unspoken ultimatum attached? Has there ever been a privately managed corporation in all of our history with that kind of coercive power?

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