The United States has made great progress over the past 50 years in cleaning up air and water through federal legislation. Now questions are being raised as to whether the laws have gone too far in restricting the “freedom” to pollute. Companies have been required to limit emissions from their smokestacks; automobile makers have been required to install emission control devices on every car they manufacture.
These regulations may have driven up the costs of automobiles and other products, but they have not limited anybody’s freedom. For Los Angeles to meet the federal mandates for clean air, it imposed regulations including a ban on gas-driven lawn mowers, elimination of drive-through windows in banks and fast-food restaurants (to cut the pollution that results from idling car engines), and a ban on charcoal lighting fluid.
While regulation for the common good is valid, trying to legislate morality has often proven to be ineffective, self-defeating, and a threat to liberty, in part because people differ in what they view as moral. When morality is the justification for banning certain behaviors, rational discussion is often impossible. Free speech is repressed, victims are demonized, practitioners of the behavior are driven underground, and the “epidemic”— whether AIDS, drug abuse, or teenage pregnancy—spreads more easily.