A Gradual and Silent Encroachment

by Jesse Childress, Age 18
Submitting Teacher: Karen Childress

"Dictatorship naturally rises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty." Plato penned these words nearly 2500 years ago, yet time has done nothing to diminish the truth they carry. The shift from democracy to tyranny starts quietly, an easily ignorable susurration sweeping through a land. But if those whispers are ignored, the fall from democracy is inexorable.

The start of this fall is generally accompanied by subtle restriction of liberties. These restrictions come in the form of regulations, packaged as prettily as possible. Government regulations are implemented in order to improve quality, provide safety, and make sure no one gets swindled. But what is a reasonable regulation that should be established in any democratic government, and what is a regulation which crosses the line and becomes dangerous to the continuance of liberty? This delineation is not clear-cut, but can be guided by core principles held in common by all who create and are affected by the regulations. In John Stossel's Tv Special "War on the Little Guys", Constitutional lawyer Jeff Rose says, "America was conceived as a sea of liberty with islands of government power. We're now a sea of government power with ever-shrinking islands of liberty." His statement gives a good mental picture of what government power should look like. What should be constantly questioned is not our liberties, but any government restrictions which encroach on these freedoms.

My grandfather used to make custom fireplace inserts. In order to make the perfect fireplace insert to fit the customer's fireplace, he would measure each fireplace and craft the insert to fit. But then the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instituted a regulation that every different size of fireplace insert had to be tested (which would cost thousands of dollars for each size) in order to insure that each one emitted only a certain amount of carbon per hour. This regulation effectively put my grandfather out of business. Since he made every insert unique, every single insert he made would have required thousands of dollars of testing. The intention of the regulation was to improve the efficiency of the inserts and to reduce particle pollution, but it put out of business anyone who made custom inserts, leaving only the mass-manufactured inserts to be sold. For any small businessmen, this regulation absolutely destroyed their business. In rural areas, where wood-burning stoves and fireplaces that do not conform to EPA regulations are a major heat-source, the unintended consequences could be colossal as homeowners find that they must spend significant time and money replacing their illegal heat-source with one that is government-approved. It also means that businesses, regardless of size, will have to expend time and money trying to conform to a regulation that is difficult to fully understand. In John Stossel's War on the Little Guy TV special, Jeff Rose makes a similar point. He points to the "Department of Energy Regulations on the formula for determining the energy efficiency of a commercial ice-maker", saying that it is incomprehensible and impossible to be understood, and therefore impossible to consistently comply to. He concludes that, "If it works, the market will figure out what is the best ice-maker."

The regulation on fireplace inserts merely serves to get in the way of small businessmen trying to make a living. It trades economic freedom for marginal non-voluntary environmental responsibility. In this instance, government officials decided that they were better at determining what was best for the general public, better than either the businessman or even the customers themselves. In essence, the government decided they needed to make people's decisions for them. Of course this was done in the name of safety and control, but this should cause stomachs to turn when it is realized the monstrous repression of freedom and enterprise that this purported safety and control costs. Fourth President of the United States, James Madison, put it best:

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpation."

The types of regulations which this example of fireplace inserts represents, and is a tame and mild regulation compared to dozens of more outrageous examples, are exactly what Madison was talking about.

Ten out of ten people die as a direct result of living. Far, far fewer people live without some sort of extreme restriction of liberty on them. It makes no sense to sacrifice liberty for safety. As Plato hinted, the pendulum tends to swing from one extreme of liberty to the other extreme of tyranny; the answer is to find a balance of freedom and government power. There is no formula to determine what makes a regulation bad or good. Whether a regulation is good and necessary must be determined by core beliefs about human equality, the necessity of liberty, and the necessity to keep government from turning into a "sea of power". In essence, to keep freedom, the majority of people must believe in and act as if they believe in the principles this country was founded on. Otherwise, by way of a "gradual and silent encroachment," that which this country was founded to be the antithesis of is what it shall become.