Using a regulatory howitzer to kill a fly — and destroying freedom in the process

Don Quixote will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the core things about being a libertarian is that you don’t try to control people’s conduct, but you do step in if they break certain clearly stated rules. Indeed, you don’t need to be a libertarian to have that view. As a capitalist, I don’t want the government controlling the marketplace. I just want it to step in and stop cheats. Heck, forget capitalism. Let’s look at the Bible. I doubt many have missed the fact that, subject to a couple of exceptions (identifying the Lord as your Lord, and requiring believers to honor their parents), the Ten Commandments prohibit several categories of immoral acts, but otherwise give people the great gift of free will when it comes to navigating the moral universe.

That’s the sublime. Here comes the ridiculous. To crack down on illegal recruiting in high school athletics, California has imposed a blanket ban holding that kids who transfer from one school to another are barred for a year from participating in competitive sports:

Morgan Farrer knew she wanted to leave Marin Catholic High School last spring. She says all her friends attend Terra Linda High School and she made the decision to transfer, no matter the consequence.

This summer, Farrer learned what it cost her: no interscholastic athletics for one full school year.

“I wanted to play (softball) there,” Farrer said of Terra Linda. “All my friends are on the team, and they want me to play with them, too.”

Farrer, a junior, is among the casualties of tough new regulations for athletic eligibility of transfer students. The new rules, instituted for every high school in the state by the California Interscholastic Federation, make it harder for high school transfer students to retain varsity eligibility at their new schools.

The federation is attempting to curb transfers in which students move to new schools purely for athletic purposes or because of illegal recruitment from coaches. The federation has jurisdiction only over athletics and no other extracurricular activities – which is why a student would not be punished for transferring to a better art department or theater program, but they would lose a year of athletic eligibility even if the transfer is not athletics-related.

The changes come on the heels of a number of violations by members of the Marin County Athletic League. In May, the Redwood High boys lacrosse team was stripped of its league championship and forced to forfeit all its wins for using two ineligible transfer students. Earlier in the spring, the Tam High boys tennis team forfeited the individual matches of an ineligible player who transferred in.

This is the same insanity that plays out in the zero tolerance world that most recently saw a boy suspended from school for drawing what was either a science fiction style weapon or a wacky house.

These kinds of legislative activities, especially when they concern children, could not be better examples of the dangers of government micro management, the type of management that, in the laziest way possible, eases policing duties for government employees. After all, it’s easier just to bar everyone from an activity than to pay attention to whether the activity is being carried out honestly. Worse, this bureaucratic management approach assumes that all employees are too stupid to make judgment calls, and that all students (and employees) are potential cheats.

This post gives me the opportunity to flog a book written more than a decade ago, but one that is as clearly relevant today as it was when written. It’s called The Death of Common Sense : How Law is Suffocating America and its author, Philip K. Howard, fills its pages with examples of rules, regulations and legislation that regularly aim punitive, mind-numbing sanctions at ordinary citizens, and that stifle innovation. Buy it or get it from the library. You’ll find it opens your eyes tro the world around you.

The post also gives me the opportunity to answer publicly a question that DQ asked me privately: How could I tolerate or find even slightly believable the Dolores Umbridge character in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? My reply was three tiered, with the last tier tying into this post’s subject. First, I’ve actually known people like Umbridge, who are sugary sweet in their presentation and utterly evil and amoral in their acts. Second, I think Umbridge is the extreme representation of girls generally, since girls are often quite mean but cover it with pinky sweetness.

Third — and here’s the tie-in to this post — I think Umbridge is not merely meant to be a character. I think she is a symbol of the type of overreaching bureaucracy that, by paying lip service to the public good, stifles initiative, imagination, free speech, ordinary morality, and individual judgment. And if you think I’m finding symbolism where there is none, keep in mind that J.K. Rowling is a citizen of Europe, where the “beneficent” EU keeps legislating freedom away, one petty regulation after another.


3 Responses

  1. You’ve got it right, Book, and that rule is foolish. In academics, we have what are called “magnet” schools that specialize in fine arts, college prep, or whatever. The idea is to create schools which will attrach certain types of students by provide an emphasis in an area that best suits their skills, interests, and needs. What is wrong, then, with a school that attracts students by specializing in physical education and sports? Within capacity constraints (and providing their own transportation), students should be able to attend the school in their district that they feel best meets their needs.

  2. Hey, what if a kid found a bullet in kindergarten and was using it as a coloring tool, Book? Would the kid be interrogated and broken because he is obviously trying to hook the playground into illegal neo-con and pseudo-fascist arms dealing?

  3. Her name *is* Dolores Umbridge, and not Faith N. Goodwill, after all! Ms. Rowling definitely was having fun with names and archetypes. I’m not all that familiar with the books, but I have wondered whether Severus Snape was originally intended to be pure evil, and Ms. Rowling modified his nature midway through the series, solely to complexify her universe?

    As a libertarian, I agree with your point about the unpleasantness of hyperregulation shown by these kinds of varsity sports rules. This kind of nannyish intervention inevitably will lead to Round Two of Regulation: These high school sports kids WILL be allowed to switch schools without penalty for one or two years whenever their head coach is fired.

    You’re absolutely right, that all kids are punished for the misbehavior of some kids and some coaches – rather than punishing the wrongdoing when it can be found and proven. I live in Texas where Football is not just King, but is All Royalty. We have the same rules. I understand why the rules have been brought in – as I understand the impulses behind all such hyperregulation – but I don’t agree with them.

    On the other hand, it could be worse! The usual leftist response would be to never allow kids to change schools at all, in the interests of “equality” and “fair competition”. Then they would follow that up with “hardship exemptions”, so that the poor would be allowed to move, and the rules would only apply to the well off.

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