Editorial: No, there oughtn’t be a law

If you search Google for the phrase, “There oughta be a law,” you’ll turn up about 455,000 results — nearly as many laws as your average legislator proposes before breakfast. Not quite. What all those links indicate is the folkloric nature of an America reflex, made famous by a newspaper comic panel created by Al Fagaly and Harry Shorten early in the 20th century.

The pen-and-ink humor depicted everyday nuisances visited upon sturdy Americans who had known something about surviving depressions and world wars. Some fellow citizen — a motorist, say, or a bank clerk — would do something really dumb, enough to frustrate the completion of a simple task, and the victimized — a word in little use then — would slap his forehead and recite “TOBAL!”

Before irony was cool, this was irony. The mere incantation of this declarative sentence was a way to cope in an unserious manner, to rid one’s self of the bother, to move on with laughter. A real law? Get real.

Not all politicians are humorless, of course, but maybe someone ought to tug at Joe Simitian, the state senator from Redwood City, and explain the joke. For the last few years Simitian has gained notoriety by announcing his annual “There Oughta Be a Law” contest, in which he invites constituents to submit legislative brainstorms.

He winnows thousands down to a few favorites before throwing them into the Sacramento hopper. Some, unsurprisingly, pass. He is completely serious, blissfully helped along by the unlikelihood that his colleagues actually read the laws they dump on the governor’s desk.

State Sen. Simitian’s other claim to infamy: He authored that new law prohibiting drivers from yakking on hand-held cell phones. And you thought maybe the manufacturer of hands-free devices poured money into his re-election campaign. An understandable assumption, but apparently an even darker motive explains the senator’s rush to attach his name to new laws.

Less sturdy Americans, imagining themselves more stressed than Fagaly and Shorten’s readers of yesteryear, turn increasingly to coercive machinery to relieve themselves of social affronts and other people’s stupidity. Sen. Simitian, mirthless but smartly sizing up his neighbors’ need of shortcuts, simply abandoned all pretense of limiting government to the harder work of protecting their liberties.

Not a healthy sign, this, betokening as it does the proliferation of the petty tyrannies now bedeviling our lives. Can we really behave virtuously, intelligently, less offensively only when we feel the political state poking its pitchfork at our posteriors? We used to believe otherwise, responding volitionally to a smorgasbord of prospects for our betterment.

We’re choking on Simitianesque laws, and we may hope for another politician to conduct a contest to repeal them. Meanwhile, we’re wondering why the senator hasn’t gone after those radio commercials that use sirens and automobile horns as sound effects. TOBAL!

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