It's time for Social Impact Statements
The Hidden Expenses of Nanny Laws and Mother Theresa Laws

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2007


These are examples of "Nanny Laws" -- laws where the community micromanages the lives of its citizens.

These laws are usually enacted when two forces converge. First, a pressure group advocates the law, and frames its advocating in such a way that it sounds morally upstanding, and second the politicians see little or no downside risk in voting for it, and an opportunity to look like they are doing something for their people.

The problem with these laws is that there is a considerable downside risk that politicians don't see. The risk they don't see is the cost of disenfranchising part of the community. It's time to correct this, and make this expense visible. We can do so with Social Impact Statements

The Hidden Problem

When the Declaration of Independence talks about a government, "Of the people, by the people, and for the people," this sounds like a platitude these days -- something nice to say, but essentially meaningless. The problem with that thinking is: The statement is still really true, and when it's ignored members of the community become disenfranchised. Enfranchisement means two things: First, that a person feels like the government is working for them, and second, that they have a say in what the government is going to do. If a person feels disenfranchised, they feel like the government is not working for them and not listening to them. When a person feels this way, their first response is to ignore the government as much as possible, and their second response is to work around its policies when they can't be ignored.

When a Nanny Law is passed, the government wins the support of the Nannies advocating the law, but they lose the support of those people who are doing what the Nanny Law opposes. The people who lost become partly disenfranchised, and they will do two things: First, ignore the law if they can, and second, work around it if they can't ignore it. The best workaround the losers can hope for is a legal loophole, the next best workaround is corrupting the enforcing officials in some way. If the stakes are high enough, violence is also a viable workaround.

This is the dark side of Nanny Laws: They encourage the government to become irrelevant to the community, they encourage corruption, and they encourage violence. This is why the community and the government need to be very cautious when passing no-brainer Nanny Laws.

Some historic examples:

Prohibition is the textbook example of a Nanny Law going bad, real bad. The law was passed at the encouragement of several temperance groups, and reducing the evils of alcohol looked like a political no-brainer at the time. (It must have looked seriously attractive at the time because it was passed not just as a law, but as a constitutional amendment. It had to be an amendment because the concept of the federal government telling its citizens how to drink was way, way outside what the constitution permitted the federal government to do.)

Passing the law was accomplished, but enforcing it was another matter. Its enforcement was spotty at best. People who still wanted to drink ignored the law when they could. When they couldn't ignore the law, they corrupted enforcement officials where they could. When that wasn't possible, violence was used -- Prohibition is famous for spawning the modern gangster movement in the US.

The Son of Prohibition is the War on Drugs, a war that Richard Nixon started way back in 1971. For some reason, the US community chose not to learn the lessons of Prohibition when it came to dealing with drugs other than alcohol. Once again, a large part of the community was disenfranchised -- that part which wanted to take drugs, and that part which wanted to service that demand. Once again, those disenfranchised community members ignored the law when they could, corrupted officials when they couldn't, and resorted to violence when other solutions didn't work.

The Dark Side of disenfranchisement: Losing respect for the law and the government

Disenfranchisement is not a black-or-white condition. A person who stops their car at a red light is enfranchised -- they know the traffic law and they support it by obeying it. Some people are totally enfranchised concerning traffic light law, and obey them at all times. I am not. If I'm driving on a lonely street at 2AM, I ignore the traffic lights and look for cars instead. On traffic lights, I'm partly enfranchised, it's a shades-of-gray condition for me. The bad part of this, as far as the government is concerned, is I'm making up my own mind about when to obey laws. When I chose not to obey a law, I'm not taking the government seriously.

This questioning of laws becomes a habit. A person can develop a habit of always obeying laws, or always questioning them, or something in between. The more community members obey laws without questioning them, the higher the enfranchisement, and the better the relation is between government and community. But, if the government gets in the habit of passing stupid laws (ones that many members of the community question), then the community will get in the habit of questioning all the laws. Members of the community will lose respect for the government, and that means the government has to work a lot harder on enforcing the laws it passes. If enfranchisement is low, and a law looks stupid, many members of the community will ignore it unless there's an enforcement official breathing down their neck.

Can a government survive when it is only partly enfranchised? Oh yes, very much so! But the less enfranchisement it has, the more gangsterish its methods of operation become.

Some contemporary examples:

Examples of communities where disenfranchisement is pervasive include Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and Palestine. These are places where the national government is almost completely disconnected from local communities. In these places what the national government says is mostly irrelevant. It is irrelevant because it is disenfranchised -- it has no following among the local community.

National, high profile hotbeds, like those mentioned above, are not the only place where disenfranchisement shows up. In the US there are urban neighborhoods where taxi drivers won't drive and police won't patrol. On the US-Mexican border there are places where immigrants flood over. These are examples of heavily disenfranchised communities in the US. The southern suburbs of Paris, where rioting has been endemic in the late 2000's, is another example.

On the other extreme, there are places such as communities in the US, South Korea, and Japan where crime is low. These are places where enfranchisement is high. The citizens have a strong stake in keeping the community orderly, and they have a strong say in what the community will do or will not do.

What can we do to improve enfranchisement? Community Impact Statements

Fundamental to solving the enfranchisement problem (and with it community crime and violence problems) is to change a community's expectations of what community laws and leaders should do. Historically, US political aspirants advertise that they will do something about various issues. When they are then elected they feel they have a mandate, and to fulfill that mandate they must pass laws. As a rule, politicians feel that doing something is better than doing nothing.

Given that doing something is an axiom of being a politician, a partial solution to the "I must do something" problem is to have legislatures prepare a "community impact statement", something comparable to an environmental impact statement, that discusses how a new law will affect the enfranchisement of various community members. Yeah, doing this is more red tape, but so are environmental impact statements. The point of doing so is the same as the point of an environmental impact statement: To make the leaders and public aware of a social cost of a law, in this case, the disenfranchisement cost.

The community impact statement should cover:

All of the above are the ignored costs of Nanny Laws. We should stop ignoring them. It is time to add community disenfranchisement cost to our legislative equation, just as we added environmental impact starting in the 1980's.

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