On the Limits of Government
by Jerome F. Winzig
Last month there were several news stories about governmental actions in North America intended to remedy a wide variety of real and perceived problems. The underlying premise of most of these actions seems to be that government has no limits and can solve almost any problem. However, these governmental actions raise some serious questions on the proper role of government.
In the Canadian city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the city council has made it illegal to wear any cosmetic fragrances in most indoor public places, including classrooms, courts, hospitals, libraries, mass-transit buses, and municipal offices. The new ordinance declares that colognes, herbal shampoos, underarm deodorants, and other scented products are hazardous to public health. A 17-year-old high school student was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted police for wearing hair gel and deodorant; his teacher demanded that he be charged with criminal assault. An 84-year-old woman was evicted from City Hall for wearing cologne while visiting a city office.
The ban is supported by ardent anti-scent opponents who, according to an article in the Boston Globe, see "a morning slap of after-shave as a blow against Mother Earth." One anti-scent champion says, "Aromatic chemicals are poisoning people and the planet as much as tobacco or pesticides," and goes on to compare the fight against fragrances to the fight against DDT.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, Hennepin County Board Chairman Randy Johnson has proposed a county resolution that would ban smoking on all county-owned property, including sidewalks, the plazas outside the Government Center, and the street that passes under the Government Center. Smoking would be illegal within 15 yards of every street-level entrance to county buildings. According to Johnson, county employees would be forbidden from smoking in their own cars "while paid by the county and performing county duties."
In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to test two of the nation's most popular diets--low-carbohydrate and low-fat--to see which is safer and more effective. Speaking in support of the plan, the Agriculture Secretary says, "Why these weight-loss diets remain so popular remains a source of extreme curiosity." Really? Robert Atkins, the cardiologist who developed the low-carbohydrate regimen, apparently hopes he'll benefit from the study: "If they do the diet correctly, it will change the basic eating patterns of Americans. It will be the greatest step forward that has ever taken place." A study will change our eating habits?
Also in Washington, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has proposed fines of as much as $250,000 against scientists who violate newly-promulgated federal human research rules, and $1 million fines against the universities that employ them. The new rule requires bioethics training for clinical researchers, new conflict-of-interest guidelines, improved training for review boards, additional patient assurances, and increased monitoring of patients. Gerald S. Levey, dean of the medical school at the University of California at Los Angeles, says, "It will drive people out of doing clinical research and, I think, cause a great deal of chaos."
In Assateague Island, Maryland, President Clinton issued an executive order that will expand the protection of coral reefs, estuaries, coastal waters, and other marine areas. The order will develop a national system of "marine protected areas," including regions where fishing, offshore drilling, and other "consumptive uses" of marine resources are banned. Freeland Mason, past president of the Virginia Watermen's Association, worries about further bans on commercial fishing and charges, "The conservationists want to cut out all commercial fishing. They don't want any fishing except by hook and line."
In each of these cases, there are serious concerns that underlie these governmental actions. Strong fragrances do irritate some people and trigger allergic reactions in others. People continue smoking even though it is hazardous to their health, and it is an addictive habit that is hard to break. Many Americans are overweight and waste a lot of money on the latest popular diets. Medical researchers do need to be careful when testing new drugs on patients who are eager to volunteer for the tests. Fishermen, ocean-going vessels, and oil companies do need to be aware of potential threats to coral reefs and other marine life.
But not every human concern can be solved by governmental action. Some solutions are worse than the problems they are supposed to fix. Banning offshore oil drilling might seem to be a serious threat to marine life. But marine scientists are discovering that offshore oil platforms are proving to be hospitable environments for coral and other marine life. Some are even proposing leaving these platforms in place once the oil fields are exhausted. Some solutions, such as the proposed legislation on medical research, presume that risk can be eliminated by governmental decree.
Some solutions place the government in the dangerous position of yielding to the concerns of a vocal but extreme minority. The Halifax ordinance, for example, supposedly tries to address a syndrome called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity that allegedly causes some individuals to become violently ill at the slightest exposure to any scents. However, while acknowledging that some people do react strongly to perfumes and scented cosmetics, most U.S. and Canadian medical researchers do not recognize the syndrome as a true organic disease. Dr. Ron House, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Health Center at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital, says, "What's taking place in Halifax appears to be collective hysteria over an illness that does not exist."
Some solutions intrude the government into people's private lives, as in Hennepin County's proposal to ban smoking in employees' private automobiles. Where does one draw the line on such intrusion? Should restaurants be prohibited from feeding patrons fatty foods or rare steaks? Too much intrusion simply invites people to defy or ignore the law.
Some observers of modern Russia believe that one of the causes of rampant crime and crony capitalism in the old Soviet Union is a legacy of the Communist era, when people could survive only by ignoring laws that were too intrusive, too ideological, or too absurd to follow.
Jiang Zemin, the President of China and head of the Communist party, is fond of pronouncements he expects everyone to follow. He has just published a new book that lays out a purported breakthrough in Communist doctrine called the "Three Represents". Jiang says the party "must always represent the development needs of China's advanced productive forces, must always represent the forward direction of China's advanced culture, and must always represent the fundamental interests of China's broadest number of people."
The governmental actions in Halifax, Minneapolis, Washington, and Assateague Island may not be as extreme as Jiang Zemin's actions. But they raise legitimate concerns. How much power should government have? How often should the judgment of the state override the decisions of individuals and private organizations?
We need to remind ourselves that freedom works because the collective result of separate individual decisions by many different people is a lot smarter and wiser than the decisions of a handful of politicians and government bureaucrats.