Draconian or Just Petty?

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Why not just regulate everything as much as possible, wrapping all human activity in a loving cocoon of safety and security?

It must be remembered that regulations are not just friendly suggestions. They are commands backed up by fines and jail sentences. Before overriding individuals' right to make their own choices, we should be exceedingly confident that they are being forced to do something extremely beneficial that could not have been achieved in any gentler manner.

Public health is an arena where the experts sometimes know better than the person on the street. In a world where the government could be trusted to regulate reluctantly and cautiously, there might be a utilitarian case for giving the government broad control over things like diet, exercise regimens, and medicine purchases.

But the government is constantly doing things like forbidding school children to raise butterflies.

The Wall Street Journal reported on January 14 that USDA rules forbid middle school students from raising and releasing monarch butterflies for a school science project. The beloved monarch falls under the category of "indigenous plant pests" and "regulated organisms" and can't be spread in the wild without government supervision. Ironically, the monarch is a species that made headlines in recent years because some environmentalists feared it would be threatened by genetically-engineered pesticide. One might think the rising generation could learn a newfound respect for the monarchs by raising them in school, but regulations can't easily capture such subtle cultural nuances.

The hindering of monarch-raising is not in itself a great loss for liberty, but it is petty rules of that sort that lead to people fearing how government would handle more intrusive powers. Columnist Jonathan Turley at NewsAndOpinion.com has been sounding the alarm about proposed legislation being considered by several states called the Model States Emergency Health Powers Act. The legislation would give governors temporary but broad powers to combat deadly plague emergencies by ordering evacuations, quarantines, acquisition of supplies, and commandeering of shelters and health-related facilities. Turley notes historical abuses of quarantine powers, including the disproportionate use of such powers against Chinese communities in California a century ago, and he fears similar abuses of power today.

The unfortunate thing is that plagues really are one of those rare situations in which sweeping powers of quarantine, crowd control, and mandatory inoculation would be morally legitimate. Even an adherent of the most individualistic code of conduct must concede that no one has the right to carry a deadly plague into the streets. That would be as absurd as contending that I possess the inalienable right to fire random shots into a crowd or hurl defective grenades that may or may not go off into a building. Plague control is an undeniably good thing and not something that can be entrusted to the simultaneous good sense of millions of autonomous individuals. Something, whether government troops or private security forces, must prevent the infected from just deciding for themselves whether to infect others.

The legitimacy of plague control makes it all the more frustrating that government keeps hinting it can't be trusted to use that sort of power wisely and would rather do things like forbid butterfly-releasing.

Some might argue that Turley's distrust of government is aberrant and extreme, that most Americans, in the wake of the Qaeda conflict, are willing to trust the government. An ABC News poll suggests that Americans' trust in government is narrowly focused, though. ABC's new poll was done to fine-tune an earlier poll that simply asked Americans whether they "trust the government in Washington to do what's right" a question that got a whopping 64% positive response after 9/11, up from just 30% in the spring of 2000. The new poll by ABC was broken down into two parts, asking Americans whether they trust government to handle national security and whether they trust government to handle social issues. A solid 68% said yes to national security, but only 38% said yes on social issues.

Something like plague control the most extreme manifestation of public health policy hovers in a gray area between national security and social policy. In the unfortunate event that the government has to test its reserves of trust to stop an outbreak of smallpox, ebola, or some other disease, let us hope it conducts itself with the efficiency that has won it trust in the national security arena and not the pettiness that has led to a cocoon of butterfly rules and other annoyances on the domestic front.