Every January elected officials return to their respective legislative offices ready to do the people’s work. For both federal and state legislatures this means passing laws. Most people who go into public service do so with a genuine desire to do good: To improve life for their fellow citizens and improve the wellbeing of their country or communities. The problem is they believe the way to do this is to pass a law or regulation. They labor under the misconception that all problems can be fixed by legislation.
This sometimes leads to humorous and disastrous consequences. For example there is the Indiana lawmaker who wanted to improve the singing of the national anthem by assessing a fine on those who butchered Star-Spangled Banner. Then there is the 18th amendment to the Constitution designed to reduce the consumption of alcohol but instead sparked a thriving black market and organized crime.
Then there is the Alternative Minimum Tax, created in 1969 because 155 high-income households had not paid a dime of federal income taxes. The households had taken advantage of so many tax benefits and deductions that reduced their tax liabilities to zero. Developed to “solve” the problem, today the AMT impacts almost all taxpayers and causes even low-income households to pay higher taxes.
This tradition lives on today as lawmakers strive to solve problems via legislation, even then the “problem” is not something that can be solved by laws or even needs to be solved.
At the beginning of each legislative session in Washington or at state capitols across the nation, hundreds of bills are introduced by legislators. Most will never go anywhere, while some will begin their trip through the legislative process only to die an ignominious death in some committee.
Others will be combined with other bills and still others will be stripped and rewritten and look nothing like what they started out to be. Some will be passed but not funded and thus remain impotent while others will become the law of the land and have an impact on the lives, business, and policy of a state or nation. What remains unclear is whether the law actually solves the problem it was created to fix.
Only time will deliver the answer to this, and only time will tell whether the fix causes more problems than the original problem itself.
Take for example the recent call for gun control laws in light of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Will banning certain classes of firearms prevent future tragedies? Will a ban on the use of antibiotics in animals prevent the development of resistant bacteria in humans? Will the labeling of GMO food products help consumers make informed choices? Will increasing the size of the cages used to house chickens improve the life of the average layer? Will consumers feel better about the eggs they eat?
Supporters of these bills would answer “yes,” but in reality they have no proof or assurance that their proposal would acutely solve the problem or improve the situation. Too often it is a belief based on hope that garners support for a bill, not any hard evidence that the new law will make any difference.
There are many special interest groups who like to say the U.S. food production system is broken. They are quick to call for legislation and regulations to “fix” the problems. Yet most of their proposals would not improve the system’s ability to provide safe, low cost, and abundant food to our nation and much of the world. While our food and fiber system is not perfect, it is the envy of the world.
Furthermore it gives American consumers the choice to eat what they want and what they can afford. In reality, many of the bills designed to improve our food supply only deal with one aspect of it and are supported by a group who want to make a change in that one area without regard for the system as a whole.
Not every “problem” is really a problem and not every “problem” can be solved by passing a new law or banning a product or practice.
On issues like energy, the environment, food production, immigration, monetary policy, and gun control, a more holistic approach is needed to examine what change we want to make and what methods will accomplish those changes.
The knee-jerk reaction fostered by our quick-fix mentality and sound-byte media will not solve our problems but just create more problems that lawmakers will want to solve with yet more laws.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Gary Truitt may write to him in care of this publication.