Wednesday 31 August 2011

Silly laws

On the first Friday of Lent 2009, a state inspector from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture raided the fish fry at St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Rochester. He had been there for his annual inspection of the church’s kitchen, but while going about his work, he observed elderly parishioners unwrapping some pies. He swooped down on them like a hawk. He asked, “Would these by any chance be homemade pies?” The elderly ladies confessed that they were homemade pies they had brought to the church. Josie Reed had made the pumpkin pie, Louise Humbert had made the raisin pie, Mary Pratte had made the coconut cream pie and Marge Murtha had made the apple pie.

By selling their prohibited substances for a dollar a slice, these ladies and their accomplices were committing a criminal act. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is illegal for these elderly ladies to bake a pie in their own kitchens for sale at a church fundraiser. The inspector declared that the baked goods could not be sold.

St. Cecilia’s holds a fish fry every Friday during Lent, and regular church suppers during the rest of the year. That’s a lot of pie to forego. What solutions might there be? The inspector informed the ladies they could continue baking pies at home if each paid a $35 fee for him to come ’round to her home and certify her kitchen as state-compliant. Alternatively, they could bake their pies in the state-inspected kitchen at the church. As anyone who bakes pies, as opposed to regulating them, could tell the inspector, if you attempt to replicate your family recipe in a strange oven, it doesn’t always turn out like it should.

By the way, even if the inspector came to their home to inspect their kitchens for cleanliness, how could he or the government be sure that the following week, the kitchens would be dirty? Would they intend to inspect the kitchens every time the ladies bake their pies for the church suppers?

A local bakery stepped in and donated some pies. But that’s not really the same, is it? Perhaps a more inventive solution is required. In simpler times, Sweeney Todd, purveyor of fine foodstuffs to Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop in Fleet Street, would have been proposing the elderly lady drop the coconut cream and replace it with state-inspector pie, perhaps with a lattice crust, symbolizing the prison bars she might otherwise be behind. No matter how you slice it, this is a form of officious tyranny. Now there is a play on words.

I suppose in one way, the law does seem reasonable. After all, one can never be absolutely sure as to just how sanitary every kitchen in the neighbourhood really is. Even restaurants have been known to have unsanitary kitchens where its customers have come down with food poisoning.

A couple of kids with a lemonade stand have also learned the rudiments of not just economic self-reliance but of civic duty also. So naturally an ever multiplying number of jurisdictions have determined to put an end to such a quintessentially American institution.

Seven-year-old Julie Murphy was selling lemonade in Portland, Oregon when two police officers demanded to see her ‘temporary restaurant licence’ which would have cost her $120. When she failed to produce it, they threatened her with a $500 fine, and that made her cry. Those cops had the finesse of a Chicago hit man. Perhaps like the officers of Saudi Arabia’s mutaween (the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices) the cheerless scolds of these police officers could be issued with whips and scourges to flay these young sinners in the street. While these young girls hands you a glass of lemonade you can watch the state enforcers turn it back into sour fruit.

Not in my wildest imagination can I see anything wrong with selling Lemonade on the street. Why would these young entrepreneurs have to pay the local government $120 for the right to sell Lemonade in front of their own home? Would someone from the purity police inspect the kitchen where the lemonade was processed? Suppose the girls processed the Lemonade right on the table where they are selling it by squeezing the lemons in a lemon squeezer and adding sugar and water to it. Would the purity police inspect the lemon squeezer to see if it had any nasty germs on its surface?

It is part of a sustained and all but explicit assault on civic participation, intended to leave government with a monopoly not just of power but of government legitimacy. So, while thanking that local bakery in Pennsylvania for their generosity in stepping up to the plate, we should note that, just as gun control is not about guns but control, so pie control is likewise not about pies, but about ever more total control. It is also about grabbing money from its citizens so that the local government coffers can be filled even higher.

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.”

Back then, the people were considered as worthless subjects of a cruel and mean despot but, even if he wanted to, he lacked the means to microregulate the lives of his subjects 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.”

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton famously said, “The era of Big Government is over.” That may be true but now Americans have instead the era of a multitude of itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy morsels of small government that cumulatively add up to something bigger than the American federal government — a web of micro-tyrannies which, in their overbearing pettiness, ensnare Americans at every turn.

Like to mull that thought over a cup of coffee? Sorry, I’d love to offer you one, but it may be illegal if I didn’t pay $35 to have my kitchen inspected by the anti-germ police. With its uncanny ability to prioritize, California, land of golden opportunities for unionized bureaucrats, it 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. 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.”

I don’t know why he would be so surprised. He lives in California. Surely he and everyone else in that state knows by now that everything they enjoy is either illegal or regulated up their keisters. 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 yeah, 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” (very Orwellian) for the Ventura County Environmental Health Division. “Those establishments have permits and can operate in front of or even inside of the stores.”

What? Even inside? Those establishments have permits”? In California, what establishment doesn’t have a permit? 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 licences may be required.

When the law says that it’s illegal for a storekeeper to offer his customer a cup of coffee, should the customer refuse to accept the gratuitous drink? When my wife and I were in Egypt, we discovered that it was customary for all stores to offer coffee or a coke to its customers and even to the taxi drivers who brought the customers into their establishments. If we refused to accept their gratuitous drinks, we would have offended the owner of the establishment. Sometimes, we entered so many stores by stomach was filled up with coca cola so I would beg their forgiveness for refusing their generous offer which they graciously accepted with a smile and a slight bow,

The prohibition of nonstate-licenced coffee is a small but palpable loss to civic life — a genuine community service, as opposed to those “Community Services” of which Elizabeth Huff is the state-designated “manager.” Randy Collins and the other taxpayers of Ventura County pay Commissar Huff’s salary. I would wager that, like most small business owners, the Collins family work hard. They take fewer vacations and receive fewer benefits than Commissar Huff. They will retire later and on a smaller pension.

Big Government requires enough of a doughnut to pay for the hole: you take as much dough as you can get away with and toss it into the big gaping nullity of micro-regulation. And it’s never enough. And eventually you wake up and discover to your horror that your business is all hole and no doughnut.

This is the reality of small business in America today. The citizens don’t make the rules; they only get to vote for people who make the rules. But as a citizen, you have to work harder, pay more taxes, buy more permits, fill in more paperwork, contribute to the growth of an ever less favourable business environment, and prostrate yourself before the Commissar of Community Services — all for the privilege of taking home less and less money.

I would offer you a cup of coffee but I haven’t paid the fee for my Kitchen Cleanliness Permit so if I do give you the coffee, the purity police will break down my front and rear doors and arrest me and take me to the local jail where I can get coffee there providing of course the jail officials have paid their fee for the Kitchen Cleanliness Permit. Yes, it is true. Government officials even eat their own.

Some laws are so stupid, you wonder if they were brought about by people whose sanity is highly suspect. Here are some examples.

In Los Angeles, you cannot bathe two babies in the same tub at the same time. In Carmel, New York, a man can't go outside while wearing a jacket and pants that do not match. In Oxford, Ohio, it's illegal for a woman to strip off her clothing while standing in front of a man's picture. In Pennsylvania it is illegal to have over 16 women live in a house together because that constitutes a brothel, however up to 120 men can live together, without breaking the law. In Michigan, a woman isn't allowed to cut her own hair without her husband's permission. In order for a pickle to officially be considered a pickle in Connecticut, it must bounce. In Richmond, Virginia it is illegal to flip a coin in a restaurant to see who pays for the coffee. In Ottumwa, Iowa, it is unlawful for any male person, within the corporate limits of the city, to wink at any female person with whom he is unacquainted. In Lehigh Nevada selling doughnuts with holes in this city is forbidden. It is illegal to take more than 2 baths a month within Boston confines. In Nicholas County, West Virginia, no member of the clergy is allowed to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit during a church service. In Glendale, California, an ordinance permits horror films to be shown only on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays. In Cicero, Illinois, the law prohibits humming a tune on public streets on Sundays. In Clinton County, Ohio, the law calls for a fine for anyone caught leaning against a public building.

In the United Kingdom, the twerps pass laws or make rules there that are just as stupid. David Cameron when he was Britain's opposition leader, pledged to end the absurdity of health and safety laws that were making the country a laughing stock. Giving examples, he said it was wrong to ban scissors in the classroom when hairdressing was being taught, or for railway staff to refuse to help a young mother carry her son's stroller because they were not insured. This year, as Prime Minister, he ordered a review of the legislation. In a draft review last month, Lord Young, a Tory peer, trumpeted that common sense should be used more often in the application of health and safety rules. But as this year it has shown that common sense is not something that often shows up when applying stupid laws.

With Britain being in dire straits, George Osborne, the government finance minister, vowed to save the country some money by ditching the usual £875 ($1,364) spent on a Christmas tree for his official residence. The chancellor said he intended to buy one for about £40 ($62) instead. However, his efforts were thwarted by health and safety rules. A government official said the department's building suppliers would refuse to decorate the tree and water it, nor would they hand over a ladder for anyone else to do the job, the Daily Mail reported. The reasons for this stupidity was that the department was obliged to get its tree from its official supplier, Exchequer Partnerships, whose catalogue had a choice of Hollyday, Indulgence, Enchantment, Icicle, or Decadence trees, or bespoke tailor-made trees, from £130 to £875. The Exchequer Partnerships (EP) warned it would not help water an off-contract tree and there were concerns about how would the government would decorate the tree. Further, EP was not obliged to lend the government a ladder. The supplier also pointed out that they might have to do various health and safety tests on the tree and its decorations, which they would need to charge the government for. EP also had concerns about who would buy an off-contract tree, how it would get into the building, and who would dispose of it. Eventually, Exchequer Partnerships donated a free tree. So in the end, the permanent secretary had to put the star on top because he was the only person in the building cleared to do it. Unfortunately, because Exchequer Partnerships wouldn't provide the government with a ladder, the permanent secretary had to get a chair from his office and stand on the chair.

For the last 10 years, Ian and Linda Cameron have lit up the top floor of their Brighton high-rise building with a display of festive lights. Now they've been ordered to stop. "A woman from the housing office called me at home and told me to take them down immediately," Ms. Cameron told The Daily Telegraph. "I was quite upset because she talked to me like I was some kind of criminal. I asked why and she simply said, 'Health and Safety.' Have they got nothing better to worry about?" Last summer tenants in the block were ordered to remove doormats from corridors because they were considered a fire risk.

Sarah Swain, a nervous swimmer, reached for a flotation device at a swimming pool in Berkshire, west of London, only to be told they were banned for safety reasons. "Being a non-swimmer, the first thing I did was look for a float," said Ms. Swain. She said she saw some in a cupboard, but when she went to get one, she was stopped by the lifeguard. "He was terribly apologetic but said I couldn't have one for health and safety reasons. When I asked him why, he said the company had banned them from handing them out because a small child almost choked on one," The Daily Telegraph reported. A spokesman for the pool said flotation aids were only available during supervised swimming lessons.

The organization representing Britain's retail stores was outraged this month to learn cashiers could face up to six months in prison for selling Christmas crackers to people under 16. Under European Union regulations passed in the summer, crackers are classified as low-grade fireworks and can only be sold to those over the age of 16. Jane Bevis, director of public affairs at the British Retail Consortium, said,

"Busy shoppers with a lot on their minds will be understandably frustrated if they are asked to provide ID to buy a box of Christmas crackers. It's the health and safety rules which have gone crackers, and not retailers themselves." Conservative MP Michael Ellis raised the issue in the House of Commons, saying health and safety legislation had reached "dizzying heights." He asked the prime minister, "Will you put a firework up their health and safety legislation?" Mr. Cameron replied, "That would give me enormous pleasure and I look forward to doing so."

In Essex, the chamber of trade in Coggeshall had to fill out a 32-page risk assessment to get permission to put up a Christmas tree. The tree had stood on the same spot for 25 years. Nonetheless, the required documentation included a map of its position, a diagram showing the exact sitting of lights on the tree and full details of any proposed road closures or diversions. The highways department also insisted on a letter being sent to all residents likely to be affected, plus a certificate of public liability insurance. The area's MP, Priti Patel, brought up the matter in the House of Commons, asking the government to ensure "the over-zealous bureaucrats at the highways department do not kill Christmas in Coggeshall.

Shirley Phelan, a 77-year-old grandmother, was barred from a pub in Bayswater, London, because she wouldn't take off her beret. The owners of the Prince Alfred pub say they have a no-hats policy to make sure everyone can be seen on closed-circuit television.

Ron Warrick, a road crossing warden -- they call them "lollipop men" in Britain because of the poles -- was banned this month from going into the road to help children cross because it was too dangerous. Council chiefs in Essex feared if Mr. Warrick started to help children cross at a pedestrian crossing when the light was red, he would not be able to make it safely back to the curb when it changed to green. An unnamed mother was quoted by the Daily Express as saying, "It's absolutely bonkers. Whoever heard of a lollipop man who cannot go into the road? It's like the punch-line to some ridiculous joke. If the council think it's too dangerous for Ron to cross the road, then why on earth do they think it's safe enough for our children to go across there?"

Tradition has it that Father Christmas travels by sleigh, but it seems even he is not exempt from the diktats of the health and safety police. They have told one Santa that he must be strapped into a full body harness in case he falls out of his sleigh as it is towed by a Land Rover at the gentle speed of five miles an hour. Meanwhile, another has been forced to abandon his sleigh altogether, and travel on a rather less magical bus.

There are three kinds of politicians. Those we cannot live without, those we can live without and those we have to live with. Whenever they do a thoroughly stupid thing, they do it because they believe they are doing it for the noblest of motives. They are the kind of fools who would stage a bull fight for a benefit on behalf of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Enacting foolish laws is the last resort of politicians who have nothing better to do with their time in office than to harass the citizens with their tomfoolery.

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