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Beware the Warm Fuzzies

Quit naming bills after dead children



When the South Carolina House recently included Gov. Nikki Haley's education spending plan in the budget they passed, the governor was thrilled. "I'm excited," she said, "about the fact that I no longer will have to feel guilty that my daughter is getting a great education in River Bluff High School in Lexington and that I have to think about the children in Bamberg not getting the same thing." Ensuring that the governor doesn't feel guilty doesn't sound like the best possible reason to spend 160 million additional public dollars, particularly since there is no empirical data suggesting the added money alone will improve educational outcomes.

This isn't the first time the governor has used essentially therapeutic arguments for her policy views. In 2012, when she called for an end to the legislature's power to adjudicate its own members' ethics violations — "self-policing" as it's usually called — Haley called for that power to be abolished. Why? Because, she explained in a press conference, "I don't want anyone else to go through what I went through." Haley herself had recently been the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation — she'd been accused of illegally lobbying while a House member — and the ordeal had apparently shaken the governor.

Gov. Haley's opposition to legislative self-policing is right on policy and constitutional grounds, but the fact that she was basing that opposition on an emotionally dissonant experience was, well, weird.

But she's hardly the only one, and the phenomenon isn't limited to female politicians. At the Statehouse it's becoming increasingly common to name bills after young people who've died tragic deaths. So, for instance, if a drunken high school student named Christie falls over the low railing of a hotel balcony — I'm making this up, understand — someone in the legislature, having been contacted by Christie's parents, will introduce a bill to require hotel owners to increase the height of balcony railings. Even before the law is passed, it will be called Christie's Law, with the implicit understanding that anyone opposing the law must be insensitive to the tragedy of the girl's short life and the pain undergone by her family.

In my experience, anyway, the arguments in favor of these bills — I think of Chandler's Law, regulating the age at which one can operate all-terrain vehicles — are far from persuasive. They are extremely unlikely to "save lives," and they impose burdensome regulations on law-abiding people. But they aren't passed on their merits; they're passed on the grounds that it makes us feel better to pass them. (Gov. Sanford, incidentally — for whom I worked at the time — vetoed Chandler's Law twice. That made a lot of people feel bad. But Gov. Haley signed it her first year in office, which made a lot of people feel better.)

In 1997 the sociologist James Nolan published The Therapeutic State. Nolan contended that, over the course of the 20th century, justifications for governmental action were given an increasingly therapeutic inflection. By the end of the century, the primary reason for holding any position was not that it actually achieved some measurable result, but that you felt strongly that it was a good thing for government to do. Nolan quotes, among scores of other examples, an exchange between Gov. Bill Clinton and President George Bush during one of the presidential debates. Then-Gov. Clinton had protested the Vietnam War while he was at Oxford. His defense was that he "felt" very strongly that the war was bad. President Bush, in turn, criticized Clinton saying he, Bush, "felt" very strongly that those who participated in protests against the United States shouldn't become president.

The trouble here — beyond the silliness of it — is that there can be no effective argument against a therapeutic argument. Logic, empirical data, constitutionality, and even morality in any real sense of the word are all meaningless when put up against a person's "feelings."

It's shocking, once you're alerted to it, how often failed governmental policies and programs are rescued and revived with the language of feelings. I attribute the reemergence of gun control legislation almost exclusively to the need to feel better. There is little if any evidence that the regulation and confiscation of firearms has any positive effect on homicide rates or "gun violence." Last year, when Congress debated President Barack Obama's proposed regulations on the sale and manufacture of certain firearms, I listened in vain for anyone making a serious argument that limiting the magazines to 10 rounds would have any beneficial effect at all. Rhetoric to the contrary, the point wasn't to "save lives." The point was to feel better that we had done something.

Welcome to the era of warm fuzzies.

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