A Window Into Lawmakers’ Souls

(The following article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2006 edition of Impact.)

Legislation can reveal a lot about the lawmakers who propose it and how they regard people.

Take a new ordinance in Bridgeport, Conn., that requires coat hooks in public restrooms. Press reports indicate the mandate’s originator, City Councilman Keith Rodgerson, said no one should have to leave belongings on a public restroom floor.

I share his dislike of dirty floors. But I could never support, much less initiate, a legal requirement for coat hooks in a commode without demeaning every citizen who has ever solved a problem on his or her own. It’s an insult to behave as if people lacked sufficient strength to decide which public restrooms to patronize, what to carry inside, when to ask a manager to add coat hooks — or in the worst case, when actually to endure the horror of touching a coat to the floor.

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The people I know are stronger than paternalistic lawmakers assume. Let me tell you about a remarkable friend.

He’s modest, so I’ll call him "Steve" (not his real name). After 10 years with the same employer, Steve lost his job. It was a white-collar position that provided a middle-class income for him, his wife and their five children. Given the circumstances of his termination, he might justifiably have sued or demanded special consideration. Instead, he simply cooperated with his successors and departed gracefully.

Rather than sign up for welfare or unemployment, he took the midnight shift at Wal-Mart. He wanted to set an example for his children, draw minimally on his family’s savings and continue to pay the mortgage, utility and food bills. He had to swallow his pride more than once, including the times he cheerfully rang up the purchases of old officemates and his former supervisor’s wife.

Steve’s job search lasted many months. His family stopped going to movies and restaurants and even ate less meat to conserve cash. With difficulty, he accepted charity from friends and family. All the while, he kept his spirits high. Wal-Mart promoted him and asked him to consider management.

Ultimately, Steve uprooted his family and moved out of state to accept a better job than the one he lost. He was so well-liked by his Wal-Mart co-workers that some of them cried the day he left.

Would it ever occur to Steve to demand a government-guaranteed restroom coat hook?

True, not everyone possesses Steve’s strength of character. But should lawmakers treat people as if they possessed so little?

Michigan may not yet mandate coat hooks, but paternalistic Lansing Democrats and Republicans alike are proposing new licensing schemes for interior designers, athletic trainers, tanning booths and other less-than-mortal threats to our safety.

A government that encompasses everything is fit only for people incapable of anything. Free societies limit government force. The Mackinac Center helps remind lawmakers of that fact.


Joseph G. Lehman is executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.