hosingAfter my posting about the drought, I heard several stories about people in São Paulo still using hoses to clean their sidewalks and the sides of their buildings. Such a waste of water is hard to tolerate, but Brazilians aren’t known for confrontation, so no one says anything.

“There ought to be a law!” is the common response, as though laws will change the civility of neighbors. Some laws do promote civility, such as noise-limit laws, no spitting on the sidewalk laws, even no nude sun-bathing laws. In times past, I suspect these laws were not needed because social pressure dictated proper behavior.

Today, that is no longer the case. People are loathe to “inflict” their concept of proper behavior on others, and, so, look to lawmakers to enact laws that will relieve them of the responsibility for enforcing civility.

Laws, whether federal, state, or local, should promote virtuous structures, like recycling, in those areas essential to public order and the common good. For example, states are capable of fining people for dumping oil into sewers or fining people for driving too fast in a school zone.

the lawBut, it isn’t up to the state to promote all virtues, such as enacting laws that require all persons to exercise daily. Neither should the state dictate how people eat, or sleep, or how much TV they watch. These are personal “virtues,” and not under the purview of the state, despite what our nanny politicians think.

In fact, we should actively oppose a state’s attempts to root out all vices, for we need to live in a world of toleration, not dictatorship. We are creatures given free will, and no government has the right to take that away from us.

The laws against smoking are pervasive, world wide. Here in our apartment building, you are forbidden to smoke, even in your own apartment. In California, you are forbidden from smoking in any public venue, even if outdoors. There is no law against selling cigarettes, but laws aplenty about where you can smoke them. What are these laws for? Health issues? or intolerance from non-smokers? If smoking is truly so harmful (and I believe it is), then why not ban cigarettes? If not we can’t ban cigarettes, why should we be able to dictate where they are smoked? Seems we’re trying to have it both ways.

Many laws being enacted are made to pacify protesting parties who take offense at someone else’s actions or livelihoods. In San Francisco, a neighborhood has recently become gentrified, but the new inhabitants don’t like the smell of a long-resident BBQ restaurant, so they’ve pressured the city government to enact laws requiring double vents to attenuate the smell of the BBQ. Who was being hurt here? Why was a law required? I can see the need for laws about clean air from industry, but from a restaurant? Money talks.

Thomas Aquinas wrote against enacting draconian laws against vice, stating that a kingdom should not forbid all vice, because it would have the effect of driving the vicious to even greater evil.

I saw the logic in this with a dear friend of mine, who told me about having curtailed her youngest daughter’s allowance due to some transgression. The allowance was used to buy birthday gifts for family and friends, and to fund the child’s summer fun and treats. With this source of funding cut off, the little one began a period of petty theft, stealing from her mom and siblings. The punishment had seemed to suit the offense, but had in reality led to worst offenses. The mother discussed the problem with the child, reduced the allowance amount, and then reinstated the weekly allowance until the previous offenses had been paid off. There were no more problems.

Aquinas argued that law should prohibit actions that harm others and work against the common good, but that laws were not required for other moral behaviors. That is where religious laws often stepped in: the Thou Shalt Nots. These 10 rules of behavior, if followed, would make a heaven of earth.

thou shalt notWe all know that the Thou Shalt Nots aren’t followed, even by our so-called civic or religious leaders.

Fundamentally, laws should protect the human dignity of all, but most especially the most vulnerable in a society, because moral appeals alone are often insufficient to protect the vulnerable. This is the force behind the popular support for the ACA in the United States…providing insurance for all people. But, the question is asked, should the government require all persons to have health insurance?

Here in São Paulo, I’m sure it is against the law for people to set up shelters in public spaces in which to live. But I look outside my window at this moment and see four people who have set up camp alongside a main road, blocking a public sidewalk. Every few weeks, the city clean-up crews come and clear the area, carting away a truck full of garbage and debris (but treasures of the homeless folks). It’s the law.

But without a public safety net to catch those who fall through the cracks of society, what good are such laws? If one action is forbidden, an alternative must be available. We shouldn’t pass laws that harm the innate dignity of a person. If a person is forced to live on the streets, we must help them preserve the dignity that remains and do them no harm. Better yet, we must see to it that options exist besides the streets.

brooms_sml2As to the washing of sidewalks, perhaps the government should organize a Sweep Our Streets program, giving free brooms to anyone who wants one. Sure, it would cost, but it would be for the common good.