The Legislative Threat to Liberty
Two weeks ago marked the beginning of the 2013 general legislative session in Utah, where legislators, lobbyists, and citizen activists converge on the Capitol to promote their personal, political, and corporate interests.
To educate and remind Utahns of what this means for them, we decided to post a billboard along I-15 which clarifies the situation more forcefully than many seem to understand. It’s taken from a well known quote by Gideon J. Tucker: “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”
In an 1866 ruling as a “surrogate” (judge) presiding over a lawsuit against the estate of a deceased individual, Tucker used the quote above to highlight the importance of constantly monitoring what legislators were doing. This is made more explicit in a preceding sentence where Tucker indicated that an issue at the heart of the lawsuit “arose from want of diligent watchfulness in respect to legislative changes.” In other words, somebody had violated the law because they didn’t realize that the law had recently changed.
This point is a perfect example of what James Madison wrote nearly a century earlier. In Federalist 62, Madison decried the constant changing of “laws” which had no solid foundation and which were altered for unnecessary reasons:
The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?
Utahns have the good fortune, compared to other states, of being ruled by a legislature which is only in session 45 calendar days per year (excluding infrequent and brief interim sessions). This part time status significantly reduces the harm that could otherwise be done by full time career politicians. (Ahem.)
But a lot can be done in 45 days, and Utah’s legislature being only part-time does not mean that liberty is never violated in this state. The opposite is true, and there is much that needs to be done to correct it. The laws in Utah are indeed “mutable” (constantly changing), and often in a direction inimical to individual liberty.
This is seen most easily in our Legislation Tracker, where we sift through the hundreds of proposed bills being proposed in the legislature and highlight the ones that strongly support or oppose liberty. At the time of this writing, there are 38 ranked bills, 30 of which the Libertas Institute opposes because they violate life, liberty, or property. That’s not a very good track record for this session so far.
A sign in the office belonging to the Speaker of the (Utah) House of Representatives, Becky Lockhart, states: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in a large group.” This power, the not-so-proverbial “tyranny of the majority,” is one which year after year, decade after decade, has methodically and increasingly been used to violate, and not protect, the liberty of individuals governed by the “large group” of politicians.
It is for that very reason that Tucker noted that one’s life, liberty, and property are not safe when the legislature is in session—the very people who in theory should be securing individual rights are the ones who actively violate them. Our billboard will be on display along I-15 for the next two months, standing as a reminder of the legislative threat to liberty that will exist for the next several weeks.