The Nation's Pulse

On Banning Things

Government must be responding to our on-going appetite for horror movies.

By 5.13.05

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The old NRA slogan says, "Guns don't kill people. People do." That's no fun, if you're a "lawmaker" -- odious name for a representative, isn't it? U.S. Representative Stephen F. Lynch (D-South Boston), "has filed a bill seeking to pull the controversial drug [painkiller Oxycontin] from the market," reported the Boston Herald Saturday, May 7.

In announcing his bill, Lynch referred to a recent robbery attempt in an Arlington, Massachusetts pharmacy. Two would-be thieves showed guns and demanded the druggist's Oxy stash. Lynch did not tell what happened next, which would have suited the NRA's purposes better than his. The pharmacist pulled an under-the-counter piece and blazed away at the robbers. The robbers shot back, then fled. Nobody got hit. No charges were filed against the gun-wielding druggist, who, the Arlington police noted, had a pistol permit and had been robbed before.

The story quoted an unintentional howler from a nurse who objected to Lynch's proposed ban. "(Oxycontin) has revolutionized comfort for many of my patients," the nurse said. Well, yes. Oxy is comfortable stuff. I've taken it myself after my most recent operation.

Here's another pregnant quote from Robin Hogen, vice president of public affairs for Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, who objected to the Lynch bill. "You're really allowing criminals to dictate health care policy."

Tempting libertarian rant in there.

I WOULD NOT CALL thing-banners criminals. To get too serious about their philosophical and practical foolery itself risks more foolishness in turn. Carrie Nation was not a Communist. But boy, we do have a lot of Carrie types, and we have always had. Combine them with the Schumer sorts ("I have a passion for legislating") and you get a kind of horror-film creeping menace. It seems unstoppable.

A movement against drunk driving was probably in order. Some reduction in blood alcohol content (BAC) legal limits, too; it's down to .10 in most states. But now, as noted by John Doyle in an opinion column in the May 7 issue of the New Hampshire Union Leader, "Police have begun arresting people with a BAC at just a fraction of the legal limit." He cites three recent cases of arrests made for BAC levels of .03, .02, and, in one bust in Florida, a .00.

The decades-long battle to ban tobacco presents a sadly familiar stretch, from set-aside no-smoking areas in restaurants to citywide prohibitions. You can no longer smoke on windy Los Angeles beaches. My grandmother, who had herself signed a temperance pledge at the turn of the last century, used to love to sit near a man with a good cigar at a baseball game. Alas, there are open-air ballparks today that have never known the whiff, and never will.

Goofy all this thing-banning may be, but one must acknowledge the sinister as well. What is the ultimate thing, after all? Property.

THE INVALUABLE THEODORE DALYRYMPLE explains in a can't miss article in the latest City Journal, analyzing post-World War II collectivism in Great Britain.

After the war, building on the nationwide consensus and collateral good feelings that had developed from the coordinated war effort, British thinkers almost uniformly came to believe that government planning should be applied to creating peacetime prosperity and fellow-feeling. Wrong-headed as that notion may have been, the war being a unique experience, it captivated even such as George Bernard Shaw ("We are all socialists now") and the-then-yet-to-be disillusioned George Orwell.

Dalrymple:

Orwell's assertion that the state would simply calculate what was needed airily overlooked the difficulties of the matter, as well as his proposal's implications for freedom. The "directing brains," as Orwell called them, would have to decide how many hairpins, how many shoelaces, were "needed" by the population under their purview. They would have to make untold millions of such decisions, likewise coordinating the production of all components of each product, on the basis of their own arbitrary notions of what their fellow citizens needed. Orwell's goal, therefore, was a society in which the authorities strictly rationed everything; for him, and untold intellectuals like him, only rationing was rational. It takes little effort of the imagination to see what this control would mean for the exercise of liberty. Among other things, people would have to be assigned work regardless of their own preferences.

Is it such a stretch from banning Oxycontin to embracing a planned economy? Not really. The impulse proceeds from the little to the bigger, as Dalrymple notes: "If we live entirely in the moment, as if the world were created exactly as we now find it, we are almost bound to propose solutions that bring even worse problems in their wake."

Take Oregon, for example. The lefty-greeny types there have passed laws over the years encouraging fuel-efficient automobiles. The citizens complied. Now comes the inevitable. The state's gasoline tax revenues are projected to start dropping as of 2014 as gas-sipper cars consume less fuel. So a state task force has recommended levying a per-mile tax on driving. Some 400 citizens in the college town of Eugene have volunteered to have GPS devices installed on their cars to monitor miles driven and to pay the per-mile tax. Such virtue!

For an example of "solutions that bring even worse problems in their wake," see the numbing discussion of tax alternatives in the lower paragraphs of this story this story by Seattle Times reporter Eric Pryne, published July 3, 2004 (yes, it's been going on that long). Sample:

(The state panel) suggested a tax of 1.25 cents per mile to eventually replace the state's gas tax of 24 cents per gallon. For a car that gets average gas mileage -- 19.7 miles per gallon in Oregon -- the total tax bill would be about the same.

But few cars are average. A 2004 Honda Civic that gets 36 miles to the gallon would pay more tax than today; a 2004 Range Rover that gets 12 would pay less.

One can imagine the roars about "fairness" and "emissions standards" that followed that determination. And it requires only memory, not imagination, to realize that the new tax would rather be added to, not "replace," the old once reality sets in.

POOR STEVE LYNCH PROBABLY will not get to ban Oxycontin. But he'll keep trying. He considers himself a "directing brain." So does Chuck Schumer.

Imagine that.

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.