Dear New Legislator


By now you've assembled your staff, established an office, and are comfortably ensconced in your new capital digs. You're bursting with enthusiasm for the challenges that lie before you.

As constituents, we would like to pass along three simple rules for good lawmaking. Clip this article and stick it to your new refrigerator. Soon you will find yourself sitting in your kitchen late at night, snacking on leftovers from your latest dinner with trade association lobbyists and mulling the relative merits of the countless new laws that are begging for your support. These rules might help you know what to do:

1. Respect the law of unintended consequences. It is as inviolable as the law of gravity. Many of today's problems are caused by yesterday's legislative solutions. Raising the minimum wage was thought a solution to the problem of low-paid workers. But it caused in part the problem of unemployment, since employers choose to do without workers, or to use machines when possible, because the minimum wage made inexperienced workers too expensive for some jobs. Rent control was supposed to create affordable housing, but it caused in part the homeless problem, because it discourages developers from building new homes. According to theory, consumers would get better health care if they could sue anyone who provides unsuccessful treatment. The resulting huge lawsuits drove doctors and medicine makers out of business, or made them more expensive, so that consumers end up with less medical care (see "Courting Danger," page 20).

No problem, say your fellow lawmakers, let's just pass some more laws to solve all these new problems. Yet the capacity of the human mind to frustrate your well-intentioned efforts is infinite. This leads to an exponentially expanding legal code and, of course, ensures a permanent need for lawmakers to work out "solutions" to the ever-increasing number of problems. It's like the children's tale about the old woman who swallowed a fly. So she had to swallow a spider to swallow the fly. Then she swallowed a mouse to swallow the spider that swallowed the fly. Then a cat, a dog, and pretty soon the old lady was trying to suck down a horse. Don't ask me why, but then she died. Don't let the same thing happen to America.

2. Punish only those who do wrong. To solve the problem of murder by handgun, punish anyone who uses a handgun to kill. Don't simply ban the weapons and thereby punish everyone who wants to own a handgun. To solve the problem of teenagers who drink and drive, punish them. Don't raise the drinking age and thereby punish every 19-year-old who wants to come home from work and have a beer. Don't let people tell you that the broader approach is necessary for an effective law. Even a rookie cop knows not to "solve" a kidnapping by dropping a bomb that explodes both kidnapper and hostage—even if it is the most effective way to punish the kidnapper.

3. Don't try to pass "invisible" taxes. We're finally wise to this one. Instead of taxing Americans to pay for health care, you might be tempted simply to pass laws that require employers to provide health care to employees. This achieves nearly the same result without in the strict sense raising taxes.

This kind of legislative legerdemain is fundamentally unfair and only hides from Americans the real extent to which they are being taxed. Sure, we appreciate your realization that private enterprise will be far more efficient at providing just about anything than will the government, but still it's a sneaky way to do things.

We could go on, but we won't. These simple rules are all we ask you to keep in mind. If you can observe them for at least the next year, then we'll talk again about that raise you mentioned.