Did the Legislature Show Any Restraint?

In her opening remarks kicking off the 2013 legislative session, Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart urged her fellow Representatives to temper the desire to legislate.

So to you, the members of the House of Representatives, I’m pleading with you to remember this one word for the next 45 days: restraint.

Restraint, representatives. Make sure to take a second and third look at that legislation you are proposing. Do we really need it? It’s been said that we each commit three federal felonies a day whether we know it or not because of the complexity of federal code. Do we as a Legislature really want to be in that kind of company? Creating so many regulations, complicating so many issues, that the average citizen can’t help but run afoul of the law?

Restraint, representatives. Read through the bills brought to you by outside influences. Ask tough questions, even if what you’re being asked to carry sounds innocuous. Especially then! If you hear anyone say, “This is really a very simple bill,” that should be your first warning.  A little restraint today, means a lot less trouble down the road.

766 bills and resolutions were introduced in this past session—one more than last year. By that metric alone, it appears that no noticeable restraint was shown in comparison to last year.

Perhaps more important than numerical restraint is the restraint shown in actual policy itself—to what extent legislators propose having government intervene in the lives of individuals. On this metric, too, the legislature showed little reservation.

Bills were proposed to license and regulate numerous professions, force property owners to employ or rent to individuals they would prefer not to, and require taxpayers to subsidize or outright fund the medical care of others with autism, hearing disabilities, and other needs. Multiple bills were proposed to have the government further become an economic developer, with tax-based incentives being offered to a variety of private businesses and organizations. As documented in our Legislator Index for this year, many other bad bills successfully made it through the legislature.

Restraint, of course, is relative; bills could have been introduced to do far worse things. But the fact that horrible bills were not introduced does not, of course, justify the ones whose violations of liberty are less alarming. Indeed, in a state where legislators largely proclaim support for liberty and the free market, it is unlikely that the state will ever witness legislative proposals to implement a significant degree of tyranny.

Instead, we must be cautious against the small, incremental, and seemingly innocuous violations of liberty. Here in Utah especially, such violations are wrapped in emotionally-charged rhetoric about protecting children or advancing a certain culture. As Justice Brandeis once said:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

C.S. Lewis echoed this sentiment as follows:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Viewed in this light, the many votes cast during this past legislative session did very little to restrain the government’s paternalistic tendencies. A state where self-reliance, charity, and volunteerism are widely championed must do better in bringing its government into line with such values and principles.

Legislative restraint should entail not only refraining from passing new bad laws, but actively repealing a slew of laws on the books which violate life, liberty, and property. If the Speaker is genuinely interested in encouraging her fellow legislators to show restraint, we hope to see much more effort in future years to purge from state code the  “insidious encroachments” which have increasingly violated individual liberty.