Rules, by and large, help people


Views from Oberlin Edward LeRoy Long Jr.


Several members of Congress, our own representative included, belong to a group called the Freedom Caucus.

Using that admirable title should encourage all of us to consider what freedom means and how it is enhanced. All of us need to make the protection of freedom a carefully considered obligation. Protecting and enhancing freedom includes understanding and supporting restraints upon behavior that threatens or misuses freedom.

We have a long history of anti-trust legislation which has been enacted to ensure that the market functions as it should. Such legislation prohibits monopolies and collusion that stifle freedom. As society has become more complex, other kinds of legislation have come to be used to keep privately driven impulses from damaging the public good. For instance, fire and building codes help to prevent dangerous and shabby behavior from threatening public safety or resulting in ugly appearances. Such codes may seem annoying, but they are resisted primarily by those who would act irresponsibly.

Our society has also learned that regulations can be useful in assuring that all parties engaged in the same enterprises abide by the same conditions. For instance, minimum wage laws are intended to see to it that all groups treat employees with some degree of fairness and that lowering wages beyond a certain point is not used to achieve competitive advantage on the backs of those who do the routine work.

Employers should welcome such laws because they help them avoid being cruel in order to remain competitive. Or, to cite a more recent example, requiring medical insurance companies to cover those with preexisting conditions removes the temptation to deny such coverage in order to keep premiums down. Such requirements do much to overcome the temptation to be harsh in order to make a profit.

Consider what sports would be like if they were governed by an effort to get rid of as many rules as possible. Suppose the public took the attitude that umpires are the problem — not individual umpires who occasionally are — but the very existence of the idea of having umpires who keep games from becoming brawls.

Or consider traffic laws. Not only should they prohibit dangerous driving, like driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but they designate the patterns that keep traffic flowing smoothly and safely. What would driving be like if every driver claimed the right to exercise individual freedom?

To be sure, not all regulations serve the public well. Some may be unwise, not because they are regulations but because they are poor regulations. And regulations can be enforced arbitrarily by officials more concerned to prove they have the power to do so than to demonstrate they can apply it wisely. But these are not reasons for repudiating the idea of laws and regulations that have an essential role in keeping societies free and workable, in preventing the conditions that prompt people to give up and overthrow institutions.

We need officials at every level of government who are guided by an appreciation for the role that laws and regulations play in enhancing our freedom and protect us from the misuses of power and privilege.

Edward LeRoy Long Jr. is a resident of Kendal and professor emeritus of Christian ethics and theology culture of Drew University. He taught religion at Oberlin College for two decades.

Views from Oberlin Edward LeRoy Long Jr.
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