In this quote, Tarkington is describing the way things work in the fictional Midwest city that is the setting for the book:
“Law-making was a pastime of the people; nothing pleased them more. Singular fermentation of their humor, they even had laws forbidding dangerous speed. More marvelous still, they had a law
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forbidding smoke! They forbade chimneys to smoke and they forbade cigarettes to smoke. They made laws for all things and forgot them immediately; though sometimes they would remember after a while, and hurry to make new laws that the old laws should be enforced — and then forget both new and old. Wherever enforcement threatened money or votes — or wherever it was too much to bother — it became a joke. Influence was the law.”
File this under, “The more things change …”
Other than being amazed that someone would try to regulate speed in 1915, the quote could have been written yesterday.
While I think it’s much harder for influence to trump enforcement in this age of cell phone videos, that doesn’t stop some from trying.
But the part about forgetting laws that are passed made me reflect back to a major story I once covered as a City Hall reporter. Almost exactly 22 years ago, Jan. 18, 1991, three people died during an AC/DC concert at the old Salt Palace arena in Salt Lake City. They died because fans had been allowed to purchase tickets for the floor of the arena, on which there were no seats. This “festival seating” arrangement allowed fans to roam freely. Unfortunately, it also allowed the crowd to surge when AC/DC came onstage, and people toward the front were trampled.
Shortly afterward, as the story raged on the national stage, a city councilman urged an ordinance to outlaw festival seating. That was when I responded to a tip, did some research and found that Salt Lake City already had outlawed festival seating in 1982 after 11 people had died entering a concert in far-away Cincinnati.
Quite literally, everyone had forgotten the ordinance was on the books. Salt Palace management had changed. So had the politicians and staff at City Hall. They hadn’t forgotten immediately, as in Tarkington’s fictitious city, but my research showed festival seating had begun again in Salt Lake in 1988.
Tragedies or economic crises sometimes prompt politicians, in a fever to appear doing something (an outward sign of leadership), to pass laws that do little more than place exclamation points on already existing laws.
The recession of 2008, for instance, prompted calls to tighten the regulation of financial institutions. Some of this was needed, but lost in all the commotion was the fact that many regulations already were in place but that regulators had become too lax or too chummy with those they were regulating. Does anybody believe the same thing won’t happen again after awhile, given similar circumstances (“awhile” may mean many decades)?
This is not meant to diminish the real legislative work that will go on in every state and in Washington this year. It’s just a reminder that some legislative solutions, just as some “message” bills, are more for a lawmaker’s resume than anything else. And also that even good legislation struggles to change human nature.