Threats to a Free Society, Small and Large

Limited government and individual liberty are under such a sustained attack today that it’s easy to miss some of the small but truly nefarious assaults on the most basic freedom to be left alone.  After all, when the federal government seems determined to socialize much of the economy and control the rest of it, who cares about some local nanny-state restrictions?

Yet the willingness to override individual liberty in seemingly “small” matters reflects the same statist philosophy behind large assaults on the free society.  It’s important to fight the battles, both small and large.

One of the latest political fads is setting public dress standards.  Writes Greg Beato for Reason online:

What else is the law but a metaphorical belt designed to uphold proprietary and keep us from exposing our inherent baseness to each other? This, at least, is what an epidemic of legislative tailors seem to believe: Each month brings news of the latest effort to crack down on saggy pants. In December, the Jasper County Council in South Carolina passed an ordinance making it illegal to wear your britches three inches below your hips and expose your underwear—or worse—to innocent bystanders. In January, South Carolina State Senator Robert Ford introduced a bill that would make saggy pants a crime throughout the entire state. Earlier this month, Joe Towns, Jr., a state representative from Tennessee, took up the call against the surprisingly long-lived fashion crime, which started in the early 1990s and continues to be popular despite—or perhaps because of—repeated efforts to criminalize it over the years.

Sag-bashers object to the style on more than just aesthetic grounds. A hallmark of hip-hop culture, saggy pants are considered an homage to prison garb, where belts aren’t allowed because of their potential utility as noose or weapon. To wear saggy pants, critics maintain, is to reject authority, embrace criminality, and visually assault the world with the garish plaids and bold patterns of fashion boxers. Also, critics assert, saggy pants make it easy to conceal knives and guns within their droopy, voluminous folds.

The ascension of President Obama may be one reason for the surge of anti-sagging evangelism in recent months. “You know, some people might not want to see your underwear—I’m one of them,” he exclaimed during a November 2008 interview with MTV. But while Obama made it clear he wasn’t interested in trying to criminalize the style, calling laws against pants-sagging as “a waste of time,” politicians like Robert Ford and Joe Towns, Jr., apparently don’t watch much MTV; the former even presented his anti-sagging legislation as a kind of tribute to the new president. “You’ve got an African-American president,” he told the Associated Press. “You don’t have to emulate prisoners no more. You can emulate somebody like Barack Obama.”

According to the Associated Press, Ford doesn’t believe his bill will pass—apparently he “just wants a spirited discussion” on the taxpayer’s dime. And even in cases where such political theater blossoms into genuine law, it often remains, well, political theater. In Delcambre, Louisiana, for example, saggy pants have been punishable by a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail since June 2007. When I called Delcambre’s mayor, Carol Broussard, to ask him how many people the town has cited for that offense since the ordinance went into effect, he said he didn’t believe any had. “There have been some warnings, though,” he offered.

Even if enforcement is rare, however, the number of places in America where, say, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton might end up with lifetime sentences just for walking down the street is somewhat alarming. Along with Jasper County and Delcambre, Lynnwood, Illinois, Mansfield, Lousiana, and who knows how many other municipalities now have specific ordinances that make it illegal to expose anything more than a three-inch swath of underwear. In addition, as Radley Balko has documented at Reason, zero-tolerance vigilantes like Flint, Michigan police chief David Dicks and Jackson, Mississippi mayor Frank Melton seem more inclined to follow the strong arm tactics of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy-style bullies than our Founding Fathers when it comes to making over their fellow citizens. “I certainly respect the Constitution, but we have some issues that are much bigger than the Constitution,” the mayor declared, as he announced his intention to issue an executive order against saggy pants even after the Jackson city council voted against such a measure on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Yes, some things “are much bigger than the Constitution.”  That’s certainly the conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C.!

I’ll admit that I just don’t understand the style of wearing one’s pants nearly down to one’s thighs, and I’d prefer not to see some young person’s underwear.  It’s an obvious issue for parental dictates as well as social pressure.  But should the government be prepared to prosecute – after all, that’s what the law is all about – people with low-riding pants?  The fact that these measures are considered seriously demonstrates how far we have fallen away from the ideal of a limited government committed to protecting individual liberty.