GOVERNMENT power is often out of control in areas where citizens wish it were constrained. Yet that power is ineffective at addressing other problems that most concern citizens.
Cumbersome laws and excessive regulations can arbitrarily destroy entrepreneurial dreams and impede economic progress. But when it comes to public safety, government policy is largely confined to punishing offenses after the fact or merely attempting to deter activity.
The Associated Press reports that 55 of 69 BCS football schools — 79.7 percent — have either reviewed or strengthened their policies regarding minors on campus following the conviction of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on dozens of child sexual abuse charges. At the same time, lawmakers in 32 state governments have reviewed statutes; at least 18 states have adopted new laws. Most of those new laws require university employees and volunteers to report child sex abuse.
The University of Oklahoma was one of two colleges reporting no action. OU officials said the school's policies undergo constant scrutiny. This may outrage some, but if OU reviews it policies on a routine basis, that's a far better mode of governance than a “do something” rush following tragedy.
Laws and regulations are enacted and implemented by fallible men and women. Careful deliberation and foresight are crucial to development of effective long-term policies. Knee-jerk reactions seldom yield that result. A law's unintended consequences can be as bad as the original problem.
Consider this: The Journal Record recently noted a law allowing mechanics to slap a lien on a car for unpaid repairs is now allowing criminals to “legally” steal vehicles. Basically, criminals take a vehicle from a car dealership under false pretenses and then leave the car at a repair shop run by an accomplice. The accomplice immediately files a lien for repairs that were never requested or rendered. The dealer is unable to reclaim the car without a payoff, or the crooks can legally sell it.
Even when policies are well-devised, they can still be undermined by incompetence or complacency. Background checks were required for coaches working at Penn State's summer sports camps, yet 234 of 735 coaches in 2009 didn't undergo those checks. Thus, David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center told the AP, the problem at Penn State was not “that they didn't have enough rules, or that they didn't have a mandatory law that required this reporting.”
Indeed, the 2012 Penn State report issued by former FBI Director Louis Freeh's law firm noted a janitor saw Sandusky molesting a young boy in 2000. That janitor, who had fought in the Korean War, reportedly told his colleagues he had “seen people with their guts blowed out, arms dismembered ... . I just witnessed something in there I'll never forget.”
Yet when another janitor suggested they notify the police, the janitor who witnessed the assault reportedly said, “No, they'll get rid of us all.” Another janitor said it “would have been like going against the president of the United States in my eyes.”
Laws and regulations matter. They play a role in preserving civil order. But laws and regulations don't purge men of evil intent, and policymakers can't perfectly anticipate how criminals will respond. Most of all, laws and regulations are no substitute for citizens' willingness to do the right thing all the time, even when others turn a blind eye.