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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Ignorance ain’t bliss”

In my column for the April 28th, 2010, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I complained about politicians being ignorant of the contents of bills that they vote on. You can read my column beneath the fold.

Ignorance ain’t bliss

A former student recently sent me a video of U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) being interviewed three years ago on MSNBC by Tucker Carlson. Rep. McCarthy had just introduced the Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007. If enacted, that bill would have banned, among other things, weapons with barrel shrouds.

Carlson asked McCarthy if she knew what a barrel shroud is. After dodging the question for a few moments, she eventually confessed: “No, I actually don’t know what a barrel shroud is.” She then ventured a guess, which Carlson informed her was wrong.

I recount this incident not to criticize McCarthy for not knowing what a barrel shroud is. Until just a few days ago, I hadn’t even heard of such a thing, much less known what one is. Being unfamiliar with barrel shrouds is hardly a crime.

What is a crime, however, is that McCarthy wrote a bill (no doubt with some help), pleaded with her congressional colleagues to enact it and stood ready to vote for it without knowing what the bill meant!

By what logic can anyone seriously allege that such a bill, had it passed, deserves the respect of law? There are problems enough with representatives and senators trying to govern our lives without knowing in any detail each of our different individual tastes, desires and circumstances. To compound such problems by writing legislation without knowing in detail what the legislation itself means is a travesty — a process that produces nothing that should be honored with the label “law.”

If McCarthy cannot even define what it is that she proposes to ban, is it fair or just to punish people who violate that ban? Had her bill passed in 2007, and had I bought a gun with a barrel shroud in 2008, I could legitimately have claimed that I had no idea that the thingy on my gun’s barrel is called a “shroud.” Would you really have thought me to be a lawbreaker — someone deserving punishment — for being ignorant of a fact that the very author of the legislation was ignorant of?

Let’s conduct a little test. I’ll give you an order and demand that you carry it out. Here goes: “Avoid logorrhea.”

Did you avoid it?

Perhaps you tried to avoid something — certain websites, or cayenne pepper, or talking about your neighbors behind their backs. But you probably just stared at the word long enough to realize that you don’t know what it means. (Or, being less lazy and more responsible than McCarthy, perhaps you looked up logorrhea’s meaning.)

“Logorrhea” is a fancy term for wordiness. It has a meaning, but one not commonly known.

Suppose McCarthy and a majority of her congressional colleagues had declared logorrhea to be a criminal offense. And then McCarthy had admitted that she didn’t really know what logorrhea actually is. Would you have felt yourself ethically obliged never again to be wordy in conversation and to forevermore avoid writing run-on sentences?

Of course not. From McCarthy’s uninformed perspective, “logorrhea” — like “barrel shrouds” — is the equivalent of “redortazizy”: a nonsense word without meaning. Because she didn’t know what she proposed and voted for, how can we say that she was trying to improve society? She merely voted for “redortazizy.”

Thankfully, McCarthy’s bill failed in Congress.

But given the glibness with which politicians such as McCarthy ban this thing and mandate that action, there’s no reason for confidence that each statute now in force was understood by the politicians who voted for it.

Exhibit A, of course, is the newly enacted health care reform bill. Coming in at 2,400 pages, this legislation is widely and no doubt correctly understood not to have been completely read by many of the legislators who cast their votes for it. (When was the last time you carefully read a densely worded 2,400-page book?)

And yet this legislation is hailed by President Obama and its other champions as a great step forward for Americans.

How can they possibly know? Many — perhaps most — of these people remain unaware of all the words stuffed into the monstrosity. And even those few public servants who slogged through all 2,400 pages surely — a la Rep. McCarthy — don’t understand what much of what they voted for means.

With its indulgence in a supersized spasm of logorrhea, Congress has ignorantly foisted on the American people a series of new taxes, dictates and opportunities for ever more bureaucratic intrusions into our daily lives.


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