Magazine | February 11, 2013, Issue

Every Man a Criminal

For Chris Matthews, the sob-sister sap who hosts MSNBC’s hilariously misnamed Hardball, President Obama’s inaugural address bore comparison to Lincoln at Gettysburg. Whether>Lincoln would have felt the same is doubtful. “He talked about the government that we want,” enthused Chris, “which is infrastructure, education, regulation, all the good things . . .”

Infrastructure? If you’re going to go for Big Government, you might as well have something to show for it. Sweden and Denmark have the Øresund Bridge, Britain and France the Channel Tunnel, Russia the St. Petersburg flood barrier. But, four years after Obama’s first stimulus bill, America still isn’t shovel-ready. A New York flood barrier? As the president would say, you didn’t build that, and neither will he.

Education? The more we spend, the more mediocre American education gets, the more it declines relative to the rest of the developed world.

So that leaves regulation as the “good thing” that gets Chris Matthews hot. And, while we will have no infrastructure projects or education improvements in the next four years, it seems safe to say we will have plenty of new regulations, bazillions of them, intruding on every aspect of life. There is now almost no activity an American can engage in that doesn’t fall under the regulation of some level of government — from handing out complimentary coffee in California hardware stores to rescuing a bird from the jaws of a cat in Virginia. And even if you do nothing at all except stay at home and sit on the toilet, the government regulates that, too.

In economic terms, around one-tenth of America’s GDP is consumed by federal regulation alone. But there are psychological costs, too. John Moulton was a distinguished judge, a man of science, and a chap who held the splendid title during the Great War of Britain’s “director-general of explosive supplies,” a job he did brilliantly. Lord Moulton divided society into three sectors, of which he considered the most important to be the “middle land” between law and absolute freedom — the domain of manners, in which the individual has to be “trusted to obey self-imposed law.” “To my mind,” wrote Moulton, “the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land.” By that measure, our greatness is shriveling fast: The land of self-regulation has been encroached on remorselessly, to the point where we increasingly accept that everything is either legal or illegal, and therefore to render any judgment of our own upon the merits of this or that would be presumptuous.

#page#A small example: The other day, I visited a Shaw’s supermarket in New Hampshire. On the front door was a sign: “No bare feet — for Health & Safety reasons.” Really? Yes, it’s true that the bare foot is particularly prone to fungus and bacteria, and one wouldn’t want it promenading in large numbers around the meat department — in the same sense that it would be unhygienic to take a leak in the produce department. But the reason a civilized person neither urinates nor pads barefoot amid the fruit and veg is not that it’s a health-code violation but that it’s (in the Moulton sense) ill mannered. Shaw’s can no longer rely on its clients to know this (and to “obey self-imposed law”), and it apparently feels it cannot prohibit such behavior merely as an affront to societal norms, so it can disapprove of barefoot shopping only as an act of regulatory non-compliance.

Speaking of “societal norms,” whatever happened to those? We used to accept that different places had broadly observed customs. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But in Rome these days they do all kinds of things: There are still a few more or less observant Catholics, but there’s also a lively crowd of gay hedonists, and a big bunch of disapproving Muslims. A norm to one is an abomination to the other, which is one reason the state is increasingly comfortable in micro-mediating social behavior.

A land of hyper-regulation is not the same as a land of law. The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled on two cases of British women whose employers forbade them to wear crucifixes — one an NHS nurse, the other a British Airways baggage handler. The court ruled against the nurse but in favor of the baggage handler. Why? What particular legal principle illuminated both cases? Don’t ask the jurists. Re the BA employee, they declared that “the court has reached the conclusion in the present case that a fair balance was not struck.” How is BA or any other employer to know what constitutes a “fair balance”? They can’t — or not reliably. Only the state and the courts can definitively establish that, by colonizing Moulton’s “middle land” unto policing dress codes, religious expression, social habits, and even casual conversational exchanges.

As that Shaw’s sign suggests, a kind of civic paralysis sets in: It is a small step from a citizenry that no longer knows how it should act to a citizenry that no longer knows whether or if it can act, and from there to a citizenry that can no longer act. When everything is the domain of law, everyone is potentially a criminal. Over the decades, National Review has been famously antipathetic to Ayn Rand, but she called this one a long time ago. In Atlas Shrugged, one of her characters muses: “One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

Which is about where we are. And, pace Chris Matthews, that’s not a “good thing.”

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

The Small Presidency

Action is something Americans of both parties demand of their presidents these days. This is natural for Democrats, whose heritage is all action, starting with Franklin Roosevelt and his Hundred ...

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

La Petite Guerre

During the decade after the first Gulf War, many national-security experts concluded that emerging technologies, especially information technologies, had created a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that would fundamentally change ...
Politics & Policy

A Man Standing

On November 10, 1975, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism a form of racism. After the vote, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. ambassador ...
Politics & Policy

Old School

The most recent ancestors that humanity shares with chimpanzees and bonobos died about 6 million years ago. For almost all of our existence, we humans have lived in small hunter-gatherer ...
Politics & Policy

Medium, Not Rare

The tale of the whistleblower generally follows a predictable arc. There is the dreadful misbehavior, and the whistleblower’s shamefaced confession of his part in it. The whistle blows. The wrongdoing ...
Politics & Policy

9/11 Aftermath

I came out of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting procedural about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, thinking that it was the best movie of 2012, but upon further ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Bailout Facts Mark Calabria’s “An End to Bailouts” (January 28) contains some interesting points, but it also contains a number of errors that substantially weaken the reliability of Mr. Calabria’s advice: 1.) ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ We wouldn’t be surprised if they lip-synched the oath of office, too. ‐ House Republican leaders have announced that they will raise the debt ceiling enough to let the federal ...
Athwart

Inaugural Exegesis

Now that the president has laid out his agenda in broad, sweeping strokes — basically, solar-powered wedding chapels for gay marriages — we can get down to the business of ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

Last Night If one sits on the steps of Sacré Coeur      to see the city after dusk, one sees, too, in the cold, each traveler:    the silk-scarved men, distinct with musk;  the ladies ...
Happy Warrior

Every Man a Criminal

For Chris Matthews, the sob-sister sap who hosts MSNBC’s hilariously misnamed Hardball, President Obama’s inaugural address bore comparison to Lincoln at Gettysburg. Whether>Lincoln would have felt the same is doubtful. ...

Most Popular

Elections

Fire Brenda Snipes

Brenda Snipes, the supervisor of elections in Florida’s Broward County, does not deserve to be within a thousand miles of any election office anywhere in these United States. She should be fired at the earliest possible opportunity. Snipes has held her position since 2003, in which year her predecessor, ... Read More
PC Culture

The Lonely Mob

Just before the election, an Andrew Gillum intern named Shelby Shoup was arrested and charged with battery after assaulting some college Republicans on the campus of Florida State University. It was rather less exciting than that sounds: She went on a rant about “Nazis” and “fascism” — Gillum’s ... Read More
World

How Immigration Changes Britain

Almost nothing is discussed as badly in America or Europe as the subject of immigration. And one reason is that it remains almost impossible to have any sensible or rational public discussion of its consequences. Or rather it is eminently possible to have a discussion about the upsides (“diversity,” talent, ... Read More
Elections

The Georgia Smear

Back in 2016, when Trump refused to say he’d necessarily accept the result if he lost, we were told that this was a terrible violation of democratic norms. Now, refusing to accept that you lost an election is the highest form of patriotism. Not only are the media and the Left not pressuring Stacey Abrams to ... Read More