Friday, May 14, 2004

Low-rider Jeans and the “Baggy Pants” Bill: Legislating Morality in Louisiana

Don’t these folks have anything better to do? The Criminal Justice Committee of the House of Representatives for the State of Louisiana considered proposed legislation that makes a certain style of attire a misdemeanor offense punishable by three eight-hour days of community service and a fine of up to $175. House Bill 1626, also known as the “Baggy Pants Bill,” in part reads: “It shall be unlawful for any person to appear in public wearing his pants below his waist and thereby exposing his skin or intimate clothing.” (A note from the land of the “politically correct” – presumably, in Louisiana, “he,” when in the context of the law, still means “he or she.”) The bill, passed by the committee, is expected to be considered by the full House within the next two months.

Please don’t misunderstand me here: I don’t approve of people dressing in ways that are revealing or provocative. I don’t think there is a constitutional right to dress any way you want to, “freedom of expression” notwithstanding. I also don’t think that laws such as the one contemplated by Louisiana is constitutional; or ultimately enforceable.

Beyond the humorous/satiric possibilities presented by the “Baggy Pants Bill,” there is the question of whether or not it is possible to legislate morality. The news article reporting the committee’s passage of HB 1626 includes a quotation from an elected official, who said in part, “It’s hard to legislate morality; you can’t really do that. It just comes to a point of plain old bad taste and it’s just gotta stop.”

Here’s an example of an attempt to legislate morality; and the ultimate failure of such an attempt. In the Volstead Act of 1920, the manufacture, sale, transportation or possession of any beer, wine, or intoxicating liquor was outlawed in the United States. “Prohibition” became the law of the land. As the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, it required action in Congress, and in the legislatures of the individual states. The amendment required a majority vote in both houses of Congress; and the approval by two-thirds of the states in order to become law – and these approvals were given. Presumably, then, the law expressed the will and desires of a majority of the population. But the flagrant violations, and the incredible criminal enterprises that arose to supply the desire of a significant minority for that which was legally denied them by law, led to the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment.

What is the role of the state? At its most basic level, the state exists to defend its citizens against attack from outside, and to maintain order internally. Attempts to legislate morality usually fall into the latter realm. Activities or behaviors on the part of individuals or groups that prove to be disruptive to the larger society tend to bring into existence laws which regulate these activities or behaviors; seeking to control or eliminate these by way of punishing the violators responsible for causing the disruption. At least in the West, the theory holds that activities or behaviors not specifically prescribed are permitted.

At a certain level, it must be acknowledged that no rule of law, whether promulgated by the decree of an absolute monarch, the vote of a democratic gathering, or enactment by a legislature and subsequent endorsement by the executive, can ultimately be effective if it is not accepted by the majority of those subject to that law. (Here it must be said that, in the case of a dictatorship, such as in Germany in the 1930’s, or the Soviet Union, laws that are not accepted as such by the majority of the citizenry are nevertheless enforced, the situation has moved from one of being a “rule of law” and has become a “rule of force” – particularly insidious when this is under the guise of being a “rule of law.”) Very few people would approve of a law that did not punish murder; any “state” in which murder was ignored, tolerated, or accepted could only be considered to be nihilistic or anarchistic – the rule of law having ceased to function, or even exist.

Morality arises from within each of us. It is impossible to impose morality from without. Murder is against the law; yet thousands of people are murdered every year. Again, don’t misunderstand what I am trying to say. This is not an argument against making laws, or enforcing laws. There is a marvelous freedom which comes from knowing what is permitted, and what is not; and what penalty for violation will be meted out as a consequence of performing that which is not permitted. Perhaps the fact of capital punishment does deter some from acts of violence; perhaps the existence of a law does prevent someone from breaking it, if for no other reason than the fear of being punished if one is caught. The virtue of self-restraint begins when the boundaries of acceptable behavior are made known to us.

However, that is only the beginning. If we do not progress beyond the point of grudging adherence to these external controls because we are unwilling to accept the consequences, in effect, we have no personal morality. Here’s an example. Mom says, “Don’t watch television today,” even though that is what you’d like to do. Then she leaves, and you’re alone in the house. What do you do? If you break the rule, can you say you are moral? If you obey the rule, the answer is, “Yes.” Another example: The speed limit for a particular stretch of roadway is 45 m.p.h. The road, multi-laned, straight, and flat, can safely support a higher rate of speed; and you’re all alone on this stretch of road. How fast do you go? You’d like to go fast – faster than is permitted by law. If you do what you want, you’ve broken the law, even if you get away with this violation. If you obey the law, you have some claim to be moral.

Sometimes, using the law to impose morality is the “easy way out.” I think that’s the case with the “Baggy Pants Bill.”