California’s Moral Superiority Complex
Steven Greenhut
by

Sacramento

I was drinking a beer recently in a bar in a small northern California town when a woman came in and demanded to know if any of the people sitting there owned a pickup truck parked out front. There was a dog inside it, sweltering in the 100-plus-degree Central Valley heat. She was going to save the dog from misery.

As an animal lover, I perked up. So did other patrons. The bartender went outside to assess the situation and came back chuckling. Sure, there’s a dog in a truck cab, she said, but the truck’s windows were rolled down. The dog probably was more comfortable than we were in the non-air-conditioned tavern. We went back to drinking as the concerned lady called the police.

The incident jumped to mind after Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed into law Assembly Bill 797, which gives anyone the “right” to smash a stranger’s car window to rescue animals that might be in distress from heat or cold. In a sane society, I suppose such a rule would be fine. But in a state filled with busybodies, this one will get weird. Think of Nick Lowe’s song, “I love the sound of breaking glass.”

Current law allows police or animal-control officers “to take all steps reasonably necessary” to extricate a suffering pooch from a hot car. Not that the authorities always are models of restraint and good judgment, but we don’t hear stories of them wantonly busting car windows. As it stands, if there’s a serious issue, one need only make a phone call — or do what one needs to do and endure any consequences. A case can be made for expanding “all steps necessary” to firefighters and paramedics, but that’s about it.

This law provides “that a person is not prevented from taking reasonable steps that are necessary to remove an animal from a motor vehicle if the person holds a reasonable belief that the animal’s safety is in immediate danger from heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, lack of food and water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.”

The animal rescuer must follow a variety of “reasonable” steps: determining the vehicle is locked, believing the animal is in imminent danger, contacting law enforcement before freeing the animal from the vehicle, remaining with the animal until an official arrives and using “no more force to enter the vehicle and remove the animal… than was necessary.” The law imposes potential fees and fines on the person who drove the vehicle.

The law protects the rescuer from criminal prosecution — and from civil liability related to the property damage or trespass to the vehicle. The rescuer could still face liability for “rendering aid to an animal.” It will be interesting to see who is liable if, while busting through a car window, a startled Pepe the Prized Pit Bull decides to bite the arm off the rescuer or bystander — or runs away and gets run over in the midst of the commotion.

The law is peppered with the phrase “reasonable,” but how do we enforce reasonable standards in an increasingly unreasonable world?

The legislation epitomizes much that’s wrong with California’s Capitol and with capitols across the country. Legislators are eager to push “Nanny State” bills — and California is ahead of the curve in this and (most other) bad trends. But, in reality, the bigger problem is our people. It’s tough to maintain any semblance of a free society when citizens are eager to catch each other doing something wrong — or to report others to government officials.

California has its own website (www.savewater.ca.gov/) that allows any of us easily to report “water waste” by our fellow citizens to the authorities. We type in the type of waste, the address and the time, attach any photos and hit send — and water cops will investigate. It’s done anonymously. Our state has been experiencing a drought and officials engaged in “drought shaming” as a way to save precious water resources.

“Our water-use complaint calls have gone up exponentially from the last two years,” a Sacramento utilities official told CBS News last year in the thick of the drought. “Obviously we can’t see everything, can’t be everywhere so having people in the community helping us out — residents, neighbors — reporting those types of things is a great tool for us too.” The news report showed a picture of a man watering down the sidewalk outside of a Los Angeles fast-food restaurant.

I find this sort of shaming appalling. A few weeks ago, I had to water down the sidewalk out front of one of my rental properties. I’m not some profligate water waster, but it was the only thing I could think of to clean up the filth that remained from some passing vagrants. I’m fortunate some nosy, know-nothing passerby didn’t report me to the water police. (The state has ended its draconian restrictions, but local water agencies can enforce their own rules.)

This is even harder to take, given something I reported for the Spectator in April. The state government has been releasing tens of thousands of acre-feet of water from dams to protect a handful of hatchery fish. As usual, the government cracks down on the public for wasting drops of water — while it flushes reservoirs of water for bureaucratic nonsense.

A water infraction or a busted window is annoying, but not the end of the world. But consider the impact after busybodies call Child Protective Services for spotting kids walking to school without an adult (as we always did as kids). There are plenty of news stories of families torn apart after someone with a moral-superiority complex — and, often, insufficient information — called the authorities.

“Remember that viral video of a man shrieking at a mother who let her child wait in the car a few minutes while she went into a phone store — a store with a plate glass window through which she could keep an eye on her kid?” wrote Lenore Skenazy in Reason. “The kid videographer was screaming as if the mom had thrown her child down a well.”

Skenazy pointed to a recent University of California-Irvine study confirming that overreactions are commonplace, “despite evidence that American children are safer than ever.” The study also found Americans have “consistently increased our estimates of the amount of danger facing children left alone in order to better justify or rationalize the moral disapproval we feel toward parents who violate this relatively new social norm.”

Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to save a suffering child or animal from a dangerously hot car, but I fear such laws are only giving the moral busybodies more encouragement — and power. As C.S. Lewis wrote, it would be “better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies” because “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
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Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.
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