The Limitations of the Law, Part 2

In my obituary notice for Gary Becker the other day, I included this observation from Becker:

“Government should do much less so they can concentrate on and do better with the tasks they are most needed for, such as police and military, infrastructure, safety nets, and regulation of activities with big externalities. Regrettably, I am not optimistic that much can be achieved quickly in slimming down governments, given the strong self-interests and special interests that benefit from the present situation.”

This tracks closely with Calvin Coolidge’s observations in his 1922 speech “The Limitations of the Law” on how the expansion of government results in undermining the rule of law, as well as taxing the competency of government itself.  Much of this can explain exactly why Obamacare is such a fiasco:

But this [expansion of government] has all been changed by embarking on a policy of a general exercise of police powers, by the public control of much private enterprise and private conduct, and of furnishing a public supply for much private need.  Here are these enormous obligations which the people found they themselves were imperfectly discharging.  They therefore undertook to lay their burdens on the National Government.  Under this weight the former accuracy of administration breaks down.  The government has not at its disposal a supply of ability, honesty, and character necessary for the solution of all these problems, or an executive capacity great enough for their perfect administration.  Nor is it in the possession of a wisdom which enables it to take great enterprises and manage them with no ground for criticism.  We cannot rid ourselves of the human element in our affairs by an act of legislation which places them under the jurisdiction of a public commission.

The same limit of the law is manifest in the exercise of the police authority.  There can be no perfect control of personal conduct by national legislation.  Its attempt must be accompanied with the full expectation of very many failures. . .  The people cannot divest themselves of their really great burdens by undertaking to provide that they shall hereafter be borne by the government. . .

Behind very many of these enlarging activities lies the untenable theory that there is some short cut to perfection.  It is conceived that there can be a horizontal elevation of the standards of the nation, immediate and perceptible, by the simple device of new laws.  This has never been the case in human experience. . .

Under the attempt to perform the impossible there sets in a general disintegration.  When legislation fails, those who look upon it as a sovereign remedy simply cry out for more legislation.  A sound and wise statesmanship which recognizes and attempts to abide by its limitations will undoubtedly find itself displaced by that type of public official who promises much, talks much, legislates much, expends much, but accomplishes little.  The deliberate, sound judgment of the country is likely to find it has been superseded by popular whim.  The independence of the legislator is broken down.  The enforcement of the law becomes uncertain.  The courts fail in their function of speedy and accurate justice; their judgments are questioned and their independence is threatened.  The law, changed and changeable on slight provocation, loses its sanctity and authority.  A continuation of this condition opens the road to chaos.

UPDATE: Loyal PL reader and commenter Michael Kennedy has several good posts about Coolidge worth taking in at the self-explanatory ChicagoBoyz blog.

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