Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Little Engine that Could Get You Arrested?

Okay, in keeping with my idea of being fair and respectful to the bottom-dwelling cretins who disagree with me, I'm going to try to be reasonable and level-headed about the sort of thing that usually makes me get all apocalyptic. In this case, legislation whose end result is books being banned and pulped.

So, let's first admit that there's a good case to be made that our scientific knowledge of the world is steadily increasing over the decades, and, as this happens, we will find out that some substances that we once assumed posed no health risk at all, do in fact pose serious risks. In response, it makes sense to get rid of things like asbestos insulation, PCBs, lead paint, etc.

Secondly, let's also admit that the government has some role to play in all of this. Many of us who remember incidents like Love Canal are reluctant to agree with those who argue that the government's public safety initiatives are uniformly wrong-minded and counterproductive. Certainly, we can be thankful for seat belts. And let's just acknowledge that the government warnings on cigarettes are probably good advice (and in Canada, they're works of art!).

But let's also acknowledge that it is extremely hard to translate scientific knowledge into legislation, and that the risk is in writing legislation that is overly broad and repressive. In fact, the central dilemma of liberalism has always been that "progress" can be necessary and beneficial and still be carried out in a way that is essentially coercive and repressive. Actually, part of the problem could just be in deciding that your idea of progress is necessary and therefore inevitable. How do you know when to back off? Especially if you see certain practices as "outmoded", "superstitious", or "unsustainable"? Isn't there also a danger, in tying knowledge to power, of destroying the folkways of those subcultures that you see as "Luddites"?

Heck if I know. But, I will say that when the Congress is at the point of outlawing the distribution of all children's books published before 1986 because they might contain lead paint, in spite of the fact that scientists are not convinced the inks contain enough lead to be dangerous, and at the expense not just of used book sellers (who aren't exactly sitting pretty as it is) but arguably of the larger cultural heritage as well, they've overreached. A reasonable answer might be some sort of warning signs for the used book stores, or even stickers. But, nope. The Consumer Protection Safety Improvement Act of 2008 seemingly requires used book stores to stop selling the books altogether. We'll see if libraries have to remove them.

As for me, I'm waiting for the inevitable black market- half the books in our basement would be contraband. I could start running them across the border in a secret book shelf built under the body of my car. Eventually, of course, the mob will get involved. Imagine shady men in black vans parked behind the city park selling copies of Little Bo Peep while watching out for the cops. And then people will get killed for ripping off the Don's stash of Bobsy Twin books.

A savvy conservative politician would make great political theatre out of this by getting himself "arrested" selling a vintage Little Golden Book at a yard sale. But, since that's not likely to happen, the rest of us need to say, "For crying out loud, set the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew free!" Hopefully, this part of the Consumer Protection Safety Act of 2008 will turn out to be one of those stupid laws that is basically unenforceable. Because, frankly, the image of all those beautiful vintage children's books at the bottom of a landfill is almost too much to bear.

So, say it with me: "They'll only get my Little Engine that Could when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers!"


Brian Dunbar said...

You won't get much argument from me: that law is chock-full of unintended consequences. Including that it might kill off thrift stores, small mom and pop used-goods stores, etc.

But hey - the Wall-Marts and Targets will go chugging merrily along, eating up the cost with a fractional mark-up on it's goods. So that's all good as far as political donations go.

I learned to love books thanks to a cache of used books - acquired from a family friend when I was 8. Spent my summer working through a back catalog of Asimov's SF mag thanks to a huge stash of them at a Goodwill in Salem, Oregon when I was 15.


Brian Dunbar said...

Many of us who remember incidents like Love Canal are reluctant to agree with those who argue that the government's public safety initiatives are uniformly wrong-minded and counterproductive.

Love Canal was a safe dump and exceeded then current Federal laws for toxic dumps.

Then the site was eminent domain'ed by the city, who cut the property up for houses, schools ... and did not disclose to anyone what the site used to be.

Rufus said...

Oh, I've heard all about Love Canal. I've actually got friends who would get drunk in the boarded up houses when they were teenagers and listen to punk rock albums. Thankfully, they're all fairly normal today.

Maybe it's not the best example! What I was getting at was that we have industries, and we know there are the going to be the occasional toxins buried among us, so it's probably not a bad idea for the government to take steps to protect the public, and even moreso than they've done in the past. Most people I've met in that area believe the real problem was the local government just wasn't terribly concerned with the health and safety of a lower working class neighborhood. And I definitely wouldn't argue that they should have done less to protect the public in Love Canal.

I'm also probably also biased because I live in a city whose industrial section has an unforgettable smell to it.

I guess I'm just saying there are some occasions in which you definitely want the state to be concerning itself with public health and safety. Not all these regulations are overkill. I would say however that the 'problem' of old children's books isn't one of those occasions.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

In this case, 'the government' in the form of the politicians who passed this bill have said they did not realize they were including children's books in the category of 'all products for children 12 and under.' Having admitted they didn't even intend to include books, they did not then do the natural thing and revisit the law to clarify their intentions. Rather, Waxman sent a letter to the CPSC warning them not to make exceptions for books.