Don’t Forget Those Pesky Fundamental Principles

Another year, another legislative session.

It’s true that Utah’s part-time, limited-salary legislature has its benefits. I mean, just look at California (my home state, which I’m not so fond of admitting these days).

But packing a year’s worth of political activity into 45 calendar days has its downsides, too. The sheer chaos that results from considering 7-800 bill proposals—some brief and easy to understand, others lengthy and insanely complex—leads to bad decisions and dangerous deference.

A prime example of this is the asset forfeiture bill that ran last year which gutted private property protections. Every single legislator voted for it. Why? It was 51 pages of “new” text that nobody had time to read, so they relied on assurances from the bill’s sponsors that it was innocuous and a good thing.

We often rail against Congress for passing laws its members haven’t even read (such as the recent Omnibus bill, among thousands of other examples). But let’s face the facts: Utah legislators are not immune to this problem. Perhaps we ask too much of mere mortals by requiring their vote on so many things so quickly. It would be beneficial, therefore, to encourage legislators to default to a no vote against any legislation they have not read and do not sufficiently understand. Sound bytes and brief summaries do not adequately convey the gravity of some of these bills.

It’s true, we poke fun at Nancy Pelosi for praising Obamacare’s passage while suggesting that Congress had to pass the bill so that the people could then find out what was actually in it. And then we have the Utah State Board of Education in June 2010 voting to “adopt the Common Core… as a framework on first reading [and] between now and the next meeting the Board Members study the standards…”

Perhaps we’re just different in thinking that things should be read and understood before they are agreed to at all.

When things are accelerated, certain things simply can’t be done sufficiently, or sometimes at all. Constituent responsiveness might suffer. Perhaps a legislator feels overwhelmed by the thousands of pages needing his or her attention and therefore seeks only to understand the high-level summaries rather than the (sometimes deceitful) details. Worst of all is that it can become difficult to keep fundamental principles at the forefront of one’s mind when everybody around you is discussing policy minutiae, strategy, and compromise.

Utah’s Constitution suggests a remedy. Article 1, Section 27 states: “Frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is essential to the security of individual rights and the perpetuity of free government.” Should legislative leadership provide this frequent recurrence? Are elected officials supposed to sound this trumpet of their own accord? Is it up to citizens to force conversation on fundamental principles so detail-focused legislators keep them in mind? Perhaps the answer to all three questions is, ideally, the same.

It’s easy to cite fundamental principles on the campaign trail. It’s not as easy to consistently apply them to hundreds of policy proposals in a frenetic 45-day period with pressure from so many interest groups not concerned with those principles, but with power, protectionism, and profit.

And that’s why Libertas Institute exists. In addition to educating Utahns at large regarding what liberty looks like and how it is applied to public policy, we encourage consistency between the affirmation and application of fundamental principles.

If the past is any indication of the future, then we’re bound to need more of it.