We’re increasingly ruled by rules

To the extent that anyone still thinks about the former Soviet Union and its satellite communist states, they understandably think about the suffocating oppression – the Berlin Wall, the gulags, the KGB, the political prisoners, the persecution of religious people and minorities. Yet, in talking to refugees from that nightmarish world, it’s clear that one of the worst aspects of communism was the endless waiting in line, the ceaseless bureaucracy and the incomprehensible rules and regulations that governed every aspect of everyday life.

Despite some real assaults on civil liberties in America (by Republican and Democratic administrations alike), Americans aren’t facing too many serious dangers of the first kind mentioned above. But, as government expands its reach, we are facing bigger lines, additional nonsensical rules and more bureaucracy. You can barely do anything these days without getting approval from the authorities these days, and this touches on even the smallest, most inconsequential areas of our existence.

Not long ago, I tried to buy some Sudafed to deal with a particularly nasty cold and had to wait in line and ask for the packages that are kept behind the drugstore counter. Apparently, small-time methamphetamine manufacturers use the stuff in their recipes. So, instead of cracking down on the meth dealers, the government does what it does best – cracking down on law-abiding citizens who merely want to relieve a little discomfort. I got my package of pills, but not until the clerk glared at me (I must be some sort of criminal for wanting the stuff!) and entered my personal information into the store computer so that pharmacists can see if I’m buying hundreds of packages of Sudafed. If so, the info I gave will allow the authorities to find me for questioning.

This tactic apparently hasn’t worked. As published reports suggest, most meth is now made in Mexico, and U.S.-based meth dealers use multiple people to legally buy the cold medicine, which has the key ingredient used in their illicit drug-making. Now, California legislators have proposed a new law (Assembly Bill 1455) that would create a state electronic database of everyone who buys cold medicine and alert stores to people who buy too much.

If the bill passes, critics note, my information would be stored by the state government, a treasure trove for identity thieves. Government agencies have been notoriously bad about protecting confidential information. Meth manufacturers will employ simple workarounds. Meanwhile, as a Los Angeles Times editorial pointed out, “An Indiana woman was arrested in July after she legitimately bought two different cold medications within a week for her husband and adult daughter.” It’s a lot easier (and less dangerous) for authorities to target law-abiding citizens who accidentally run afoul of some nonsensical law than it is to target the real bad guys, who can be rather clever about evading all these rules and stings. I call it the easy-mark syndrome.

The Sudafed rules deal with a common cold medicine. So you can imagine the crazy efforts by government to crack down on medical marijuana – which not only makes sick people feel better, but makes them feel pretty good when they’re not sick. Officials who no doubt have enjoyed their share of three-martini lunches are cracking down on storefront marijuana clinics in Los Angeles and Orange County, even though most of these clinics have done their best to comply with a mind-numbing and contradictory array of laws and legal decisions.

Authorities used to claim that federal law banning medical marijuana trumped California law that allows it, but after the courts have cleared up that confusion, L.A. officials now insist that these clinics are not allowed to “sell” cannabis to patients even though that interpretation stretches the spirit of the law to the breaking point. “Any excuse serves a tyrant,” as the Aesop saying goes. Lake Forest and other OC cities prefer to use zoning laws to crack down on clinics, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department – not often a friend of civil liberties – is, coincidentally, cracking down on clinics in the city at the same time.

How dare a free society allow its free citizens to choose what type of medications to use to deal with cancer and other ailments? I find it particularly offensive that officials are so relentless about it, no matter what the courts decide. When the courts rule against them, they abuse land-use rules or other regulatory tools to clamp down on things they simply do not like. Those people who try to follow the law by getting state-issued patient ID cards and operating legitimate, out-in-the-open clinics are most likely to feel the sting of the authorities. Most people who need the stuff no doubt have a more reliable underground sources for it, which again reminds us of the Soviet way of life, where the underground economy was always more vibrant that the official economy.

The Register reported recently that parks officials spent more than $40,000 clamping down on nudists at a small stretch of San Onofre State Beach. Public records requests showed that the agency’s claims of numerous complaints were a canard. I can’t possibly fathom any enjoyment of strutting my flabby body around the beach in its most natural form, but who cares if other people enjoy doing this in some limited area where it offends almost no one?

Southern California beaches, once known as the epitome of American-style freedom, have become no-drinking, no-smoking, no-fun zones. San Diego, the poster child for outrageous spending on public employee salaries and pensions, is trying to close its budget gap by shutting down beach fire pits in order to save on maintenance costs. Knowing government, it will no doubt cost more to bulldoze the pits than to maintain them, but government officials like to punish the public when people get ornery about governmental overspending. When government overspends (as it always does), it prefers to cut first those things that are most valued by the public.

I’m focusing on those small aspects of life, because if the government won’t leave us alone on these matters, don’t expect it to leave us alone on the big stuff. Like good citizens, we all follow the new rules and the nonsensical restrictions.

I haven’t seen much civil disobedience lately. I’m not as concerned that our nation will become a land of gulags, but that it already is becoming a land ruled by bureaucrats and defined by endless lines and paperwork – and even simple pleasures will be banned or so greatly restricted that they are not worth the bother. If you think it’s bad now, just wait until these folks get control of your health care.

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center in Sacramento.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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