Steyn on America

All this week at SteynOnline, we’re looking at what I regard as the key issues in this year’s big vote. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so drop us a line at Mark’s Mailbox. Following Monday’s musings on money, and yesterday’s on the new class divide, today we turn to the curse of the age: The micro-regulation of every aspect of life.

As I said last year, the short history of the post-war western democracies is that you don’t need a president-for-life if you’ve got a bureaucracy-for-life: The people can elect “conservatives,” as from  time to time the Germans and British have done, and the left is mostly relaxed about it because, in all but exceptional cases (Thatcher), they fulfill the same function in the system as the first-year boys at wintry English boarding schools who for tuppence-ha’penny would agree to go and take the chill off the toilet seat in the unheated lavatories until the prefects were ready to stroll in and assume their rightful place. Republicans have gotten good at keeping the seat warm.

Thus, America in the 21st century – a supposedly “center-right” nation governed by a left-of-center political class, a lefter-of-center judiciary, and a leftest-of-center bureaucracy.

Liberalism, as the political scientist Theodore Lowi wrote, “is hostile to law”, and has a preference for “policy without law”. The law itself doesn’t really matter so much as the process it sets in motion – or, as Nancy Pelosi famously put it, “we have to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it.” When Lowi was writing in the Seventies, he noted that both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission were set up by a Congress that didn’t identify a single policy goal for these agencies and “provided no standards whatsoever” for their conduct. So they made it up as they went along.

Where do you go to vote out the CPSC? Or OSHA? Or the EPA?

Or any of the rest of the acronyms uncountable drowning America in alphabet soup. “We the people” has degenerated into “We the regulators, we the bureaucrats, we the permit-issuers”. “Ignorantia juris non excusat” is one of the oldest concepts of civilized society. But today we’re all ignorant of the law, from the legislators who pass the laws unread to li’l ol’ you on the receiving end. How can you not be? Under the hyper-regulatory state, any one of us is in breach of dozens of laws at any one time without being aware of it. In a New York deli, a bagel with cream cheese is subject to food-preparation tax, but a plain bagel with no filling is not. Except that, if the clerk slices the plain bagel for you, the food-preparation tax applies. Just for that one knife cut. As a progressive caring society New York has advanced from tax cuts to taxed cuts. Oh, and, if he doesn’t slice the plain bagel, but you opt to eat it in the deli, the food preparation tax also applies, even though no preparation was required of the food.

Got that? If you own a deli, you better have, because New York is so broke they need their nine cents per sliced bagel and their bagel inspectors are cracking down.

In such a world, there is no “law” – in the sense of (a) you the citizen being found by (b) a jury of your peers to be in breach of (c) a statute passed by (d) your elected representatives. Instead, unknown, unnamed, unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats determine transgressions, prosecute infractions and levy fines for behavioral rules they themselves craft and which, thanks to the ever more tangled spaghetti of preferences, subsidies, entitlements and incentives, apply to different citizens unequally. You may be lucky: You may not catch their eye – for a while. But perhaps your neighbor does, or the guy down the street. No trial, no jury, just a dogsbody in some cubicle who pronounces that you’re guilty of an offense a colleague of his invented.

This is soft tyranny – and, actually, not so soft. Indeed, we do an injustice to ye medieval tyrants of yore. As Tocqueville wrote:

There was a time in Europe in which the law, as well as the consent of the people, clothed kings with a power almost without limits. But almost never did it happen that they made use of it.

True. His Majesty was an absolute tyrant – in theory. But in practice he was in his palace hundreds of miles away. A pantalooned emissary might come prancing into your dooryard once every half-decade and give you a hard time, but for the most part you got on with your life relatively undisturbed. In Tocqueville’s words:

Although the entire government of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the emperor alone, and although he remained, in time of need, the arbiter of all things, the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.

Just so. You were the mean and worthless subject of a cruel and mercurial despot but, even if he wanted to, he lacked the means to micro-regulate your life in every aspect. Yet what would happen, Tocqueville wondered, if administrative capability were to evolve to make it possible “to subject all of his subjects to the details of a uniform set of regulations”?

That moment has now arrived. Thanks to computer technology, it’s easier than ever to subject the state’s subjects to “a uniform set of regulations”. Like to mull that thought over a cup o’ joe? Sorry, I’d love to offer you one, but it’s illegal. With its uncanny ability to prioritize, California, land of Golden Statism for unionized bureaucrats, is cracking down on complimentary coffee. From The Ventura County Star:

Ty Brann likes the neighborly feel of his local hardware store. The fourth-generation Ventura County resident and small business owner has been going to the B & B Do it Center on Mobile Avenue in Camarillo for many years. His company, Kastle Kare, does pest control, landscaping and plant care, and he’s a B & B regular.

So when he learned the county had told B & B it could no longer put out its usual box of doughnuts and coffee pot for the morning customers, Brann was taken aback.

Dunno why. He lives in California. He surely knows by now everything you enjoy is either illegal or regulated up the wazoo. The Collins family had been putting a coffee pot on the counter for 15 years, as the previous owners of the store had done, too, and yea, back through all the generations. But in California that’s an illegal act. The permit mullahs told Randy Collins that he needed to install stainless steel sinks with hot and cold water and a prep kitchen to handle the doughnuts. “What some establishments do is hire a mobile food preparation services or in some cases a coffee service,” explained Elizabeth Huff, “Manager of Community Services” (yeah, right). “Those establishments have permits and can operate in front of or even inside of the stores.”

Even inside? Gee, that’s big of you. “Those establishments have permits”? In California, what doesn’t? Commissar Huff added that there are a range of permits of varying costs. No doubt a plain instant coffee permit would be relatively simple, but if you wished to offer a decaf caramel macchiato with complimentary biscotti additional licenses may be required.

“We’re certainly working with the health department,” said Mr Collins. “We want to be in compliance with the law.”


When the law says that it’s illegal for a storekeeper to offer his customer a cup of coffee, you should be proud to be in non-compliance. What the hell did you guys bother holding a revolution for? George III didn’t care what complimentary liquid refreshments a village blacksmith shared with his clientele. Say what you like about the Boston Tea Party, but nobody attempted to prosecute them for unlicensed handling of beverage items in a public place.

This is the reality of small business in America today. You don’t make the rules, you don’t vote for people who make the rules. But you have to work harder, pay more taxes, buy more permits, fill in more paperwork, contribute to the growth of an ever less favorable business environment and prostrate yourself before the Commissar of Community Services – all for the privilege of taking home less and less money.

And eventually you wake up and find, as in California, that your state is all hole and no doughnut. Just as gun control is not about guns but control, so doughnut control is likewise not about doughnuts, but about ever more total control. Big Government won’t make the coffee, or the doughnuts. It just regulates them. All it makes is small citizens. If next Tuesday doesn’t begin the rollback of unaffordable hyper-regulation, we’ll need a new mass movement – the Alliance of Non-Compliance.

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