Lessons from Outrageous Laws

The current backlash over the growth of government has spawned an often bitter struggle to separate the statutory wheat from the chaff. While most of the controversy surrounds costly entitlements and federal regulations, politicians should be aware that there are many laws and ordinances in Michigan that nearly everyone will agree should be repealed. A brief review not only makes for some laughs, but also should cause public officials to think twice before regulating further. To the careful observer, such laws speak volumes about what occurs when political leaders abandon principle, and begin governing by crisis or by special interest.

Consider the Michigan law that makes it illegal to have an emblem or insignia of an organization on your car when you are not a member of that organization. How many Michigan motorists are illegally driving around the state in a used car with the former owner's alumni association decal plastered to the window? Or what about that auto dealership insignia? Does buying a Taurus make me a member of Big Al's Ford? Who in the world ever thought that driving with the wrong bumper sticker should be a punishable offense?

Michigan municipalities have their own unique laws. The City of Harper Woods prohibits painting birds, in an apparent effort to stop unscrupulous persons from passing off a sparrow as a canary with the help of a yellow highlighter. The city manager there notes, however, that to his knowledge no one has ever been prosecuted under the ordinance. The Village of Lyons provides a fine for "indecent exposure of any stallion or bull." And it is unlawful in Hancock, a city with steep terrain, to coast or slide on any of its streets or sidewalks- except those designated by the City as streets or sidewalks for coasting or sliding.

Politicians have addressed actions that run from the basic to the bizarre. State law prohibits walkathons, playing the Star Spangled Banner as a dance tune or exit march, and inciting Indians to break a law-the latter being a felony. It clamps down on free speech with many laws that would most likely be held unconstitutional if challenged, including statutes which prohibit blasphemy, profane curses, and using indecent language in the presence of a woman or child. A state law even allows city mayors and council members to be fined if they fail to move to suppress a riot.

Some of the worst laws are those that make it difficult for a person to earn a living or operate a business, which often hit low income business people and struggling entrepreneurs hardest. For example, Michigan farmers need a license to feed garbage to a pig, unless the garbage is from their own household. Barbers may not cut hair on Sunday unless the person receiving the haircut is dead. The fire protection code requires sprinklers in walk-in freezers, and the City of Detroit requires parking lot attendants to be licensed, even if all they do is direct cars to a parking spot. State law prohibits selling bulk candy by gross weight, requiring small mom and pop stores to buy special scales for candy with wrappers.

While many rules reflect historical times and mores, there are some lessons to be learned from these often silly and sometimes destructive laws. First, there is tremendous political pressure to govern by crisis. When a riot occurs and the people think the mayor could have done more to stop it, we pass a state law providing a fine for such neglect. When someone poisons a pig with tainted garbage, we require a license. When a parking lot attendant damages a car or allows a car to be damaged, we require a license. When dwarf tossing becomes a spectator sport, we require a permit, as the City of Lansing does. Any abuse or unconventional behavior becomes grounds for government intervention.

While it is always hard to resist the heat of the moment, this problem of governing by crisis is exacerbated by the popular sentiment that we should look immediately to government to remedy problems. And often, as if in search of utopia, we mistakenly believe that all problems have political solutions. What we need are officials with a better definition of the role of government and when, instead of turning to the law, people should either turn to themselves or accept a certain modicum of imperfection. A country without some abuse of liberty is a country without liberty.

The second lesson to glean from outrageous laws is that special interests thrive where policy is not circumscribed by principle. Movers of household goods have a special Michigan law that fixes prices when moving goods more than eight miles, which prevents small entrepreneurial firms from competing freely on the basis of price, and guarantees greater profits for others. And what association was so miffed that people were putting its stickers on their cars without actually being members that it lobbied successfully to prohibit that act? Where there is no commitment to a free-market economy, citizens are at the mercy of the well-heeled interests.

Abraham Lincoln once said that the best way to get a bad law repealed is to strictly enforce it. Maybe we should begin to arrest Michigan drivers with empty windshield washers, fine people who sell or give cigarettes containing ingredients deleterious to health, jail divorced couples who live together, and prosecute architects who fail to specify enough temporary toilets in a construction contract. Perhaps, however, we should simply be more sensible about what we expect from government.