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Commentary: Land of the free or home of the saved?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 25, 2010 - I recently purchased a candle. It was a scented model, the kind that comes inside a glass jar. I thought it might improve the air quality in my basement den where I frequently smoke cigars. The label on the jar containing the candle featured a warning: KEEP AWAY FROM THINGS THAT CAN CATCH FIRE.

What? You mean if I light the candle and place it, say, near the kitchen curtains, the flame might spread? No wonder the house keeps burning down.

The usual explanation for an idiotic caution like this is lawyers. In our overly litigious society, the theory goes, manufacturers have to publish product warnings of the DO-NOT-POINT-GUN-AT-HEAD variety to avoid law suits.

There's truth in that assertion, but it's a truth that masks a deeper problem -- namely, the national effort to make life fool-proof. And nowhere is the folly of that crusade better illustrated than in the civil war currently being waged over health care.

Virtually everybody agrees that the present state of affairs is unsustainable. The most recent CNN polls indicate that only 18 percent of respondents are satisfied with the status quo. There's little consensus, however, among the remaining 82 percent about how best to remedy the situation.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have cobbled together a legislative monstrosity worthy of an aspiring Frankenstein that seeks to resolve irreconcilable contradiction by saving people from themselves. In response, Rush Limbaugh -- aka the Mound of Sound -- actually stumbled across an apt metaphor when he described the bill as a "2,700-page suicide note." It may prove to be just that for its supporters when they stand for re-election next fall.

Ceding reformers the best of intentions, but bearing in mind the adage that the road to hell is often paved with those, I think it's about time to consider the deleterious impact of the Law of the Least Able, or "LoLA".

This law, which I just made up, states people in any bureaucracy are governed by rules drafted in response to the behavior of its least competent members. To see how this works, consider a parable:

Sidney is employed by the St. Louis branch of a large corporation. Bored at work one day, he decides to break the tedium by playing a prank. When the office clears for lunch, he drops his trousers and sits on the copying machine, making a photocopy of his backside, which he then faxes to the home office in Buffalo along with a humorous caption.

When the boss gets back from lunch, he's got an irate voice mail from headquarters waiting for him. His first inclination is to fire the offending dolt but, consulting the employee conduct manual, he can find no specific prohibition against the conduct alleged.

There is, of course, a vaguely worded moral fitness clause applicable to all employees but he can't decide if photocopying your butt qualifies as "immoral behavior" or is better understood as the action of a simpleton. He consequently refers the matter to Legal for guidance.

Company lawyers research the relevant employment statutes and case law. Three weeks later, they return a 32-page, single-spaced policy clarification banning "the mechanical replication, or artistic depiction, of anatomical features normally covered by customary business attire, or the facsimile transmission thereof." To insure compliance, the office manager is now required to approve each employee's use of the photocopy or fax machine. In her absence, the VP of operations or his designate must be consulted prior to usage.

The office manager has been around long enough to recognize a trap when she sees one. She's not about to play designated fall guy the next time some boob screws up so to cover her rear, she designs and distributes Intradepartmental Office Form #666-A: Request to Make Photocopies and Form #666-B: Application to Send a Fax.

Each form must be completed in triplicate, documenting the date, time and reason for the request, as well as the number of pages to be copied or faxed. The form must be signed in ink by the concerned employee and counter-signed by the approving official, after which one copy is retained for the office manager's files, one is forwarded to the general manager for his information and the final is returned to the employee for his personal records.

Soon, the sheer volume of new paperwork prevents the office manager from adequately performing her other duties. She subsequently hires a copy/fax compliance inspector to manage the records. As other branch offices begin to request his services, he acquires a travel budget and an administrative assistant of his own.

The daily routine of all the sensible adults the company employs has thus been needlessly complicated by the effort to make the place idiot-proof. Meanwhile, Sidney marries the CEO's favorite niece and is promoted to regional sales manager.

If the foregoing strikes you as hyperbolic, rest assured that it's not all that different from how LoLA operates in the real world. Bureaucracies routinely bind sensible adults in furlongs of red tape in the attempt to immunize themselves against the actions of fools. In doing so, they drag everybody down to the fool's level.

Most Americans -- about 85 percent -- have managed to obtain health insurance on their own. Of the uninsured, many are responsible people who have either lost their insurance through no fault of their own, or who are deemed medically undesirable by a profit-driven health-insurance system.

Others, however, seem to have different priorities. These are the people who, when given free smoke detectors by the fire department, remove the 9-volt batteries from them to power toy cars. They then place a lighted candle beneath the draperies and are next seen on the 6 p.m. news lamenting their run of bad luck. At what point do people become responsible for their own demise?

Folly is the flipside of freedom. Attempts to outlaw the former necessarily diminish the latter. Presently, plans are afoot to hire some 12,000 new IRS agents to monitor compliance with the new health-care bill that seeks to save the irresponsible from themselves by making it illegal not to buy health insurance.

As the song says, "Whatever LoLA wants, LoLA gets."

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.