This past week our nation lost a decent man, in the death of Representative Sonny Bono in a snow skiing accident. By now, everyone has heard the eulogies of Mr. Bono, to which I can only add that I am very appreciative for even the brief time I had to know him.
Despite the sorrow, we must be cautious with how we proceed. Already there is grumbling of groups wanting the government to step in and regulate snow skiing, to prevent further tragedies. Those desires are fueled by the fact that this was the second celebrity death on skis in as many weeks, the first being the death of Michael Kennedy.
But tragedies, and the emotions which surround them, should never dictate public policy. To allow emotion to overwhelm reason, to allow sorrow to trump reasonableness, is dangerous and can only lead to bag legislation.
Accidents happen and cannot be foreseen. That is, perhaps, the single most true statement one can make. By the very definition of an accident, it is an unforeseen, undesired incident in an otherwise routine activity. It is incumbent upon us to take precautions against accidents, whether it is driving a motor vehicle, working around the house, riding a bicycle or skiing. But how does the government "outlaw" accidents, which is what some obviously propose Congress do when they ask for legislation to "stop" accidents from happening.
The only way to completely prevent an accident from occurring during a particular activity is to cease the activity, or to make participation in the activity so onerous, so burdensome, that the activity might as well have been banned.
In the emotion of the moment, people often say and do reckless things. For the individual, that can have deep ramifications. But when it is a single individual acting unreasonably in the throws of emotion in the face of sorrow, then the consequences are borne by only that person and his family. But when the government behaves recklessly in response to a tragedy, the consequences can be felt by everyone. This is especially true when politicians get in on the act.
We can think back no further than July of 1996, when a plane carrying several hundred people suddenly and mysteriously crashed off the coast of Long Island. Within days, Congress had passed emergency legislation calling for costly new security measures, including a controversial "screening" method which calls for airlines to arbitrarily detain passengers just because the person meets certain criteria which border on racist and xenophobic.
The politicians got to feel warm inside because they had responded to a tragedy. But now, there are complaints from airline passengers as they wait in longer lines. And, of course, the real tragedy is that not a single security measure could have prevented the explosion of that plane. It was an accident.
Benjamin Franklin once addressed this issue by saying that anyone who would "give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." As we grieve an accidental death, we must make sure that in our sorrow we do not create a larger tragedy by allowing government to improperly take on powers and responsibilities it should not have, or to unnecessarily expand those that it does.
When the government does this great harm is inevitably done in the name of "protecting" people. The scariest words in modern lexicon are, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Government cannot protect us from accidents any more than it can tax us into prosperity.
Our Constitution purposefully specifies the manner in which laws can take effect, to minimize the threat of rule by emotion of the moment. But then, our Constitution also specifically limits the powers the federal government, yet that has not stopped our federal leaders from passing laws which have no constitutional base.
As our nation grieves the loss of a man of considerable and varied talent, let us not rush to remember him in a way which discounts the rule of law, which dishonors the notions of individual responsibility, and which ignores our system of government. It's easy to look for a quick fix from government. But it is also very dangerous.