Monday, May 24, 2004

Getting It Perfect

Have you ever noticed that Americans are perfectionists? It's true.

It all began with the U.S. Constitution. (For the benefit of the ahistorical reader, the Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788.) The preamble to the Constitution says it was "ordained and established" (a ringing phrase, that) "in order to form a more perfect union" -- among other things. It's been all downhill since then.

The Federalists (pro-Constitution) and anti-Federalists (anti-Constitution) continued to squabble for a decade or so after ratification of the Constitution. The anti-Federalists believed the union to be perfect enough under the Articles of Confederation. But those blasted perfectionist Federalists won the debate. So here we are.

The Federalists were such perfectionists that they left room in the Constitution for amending it. After all, a "more perfect union" can't be attained in a day. Thus, in our striving toward perfection -- Consitution-wise, that is -- we have now amended it 27 times. We even adopted an amendment (XVIII, the Prohibition amendment, 1919) and only 14 years later amended it out of existence (XXI, the Repeal amendment, 1933).

But we can be very patient when it comes to perfecting the Constitution through amendments. Amendment XXVII (the most recent amendment) was submitted to the States on September 25, 1789, as part of the proposed Bill of Rights. It wasn't ratified until May 7, 1992. Not to worry, though, Amendment XXVII isn't about rights, it merely prevents a sitting Congress from raising its own pay:
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
So now the only group of public servants that can vote itself a pay raise must wait out an election before a raise takes effect. Big deal. Most members of Congress get re-elected, anyway.

Where was I? Oh, yes, perfectionism. Well, after the Constitution was ratified, the next big squabble was about states' rights. Some politicians from the North preferred to secede rather than remain in a union that permitted slavery. Some politicians from the South said the slavery issue was just a Northern excuse to bully the South; the South, they said, should secede from the union. The union, it seems, just wasn't perfect enough for either the North or the South. Well, the South won that squabble by seceding first, which so ticked off the North that it dragged the South back into the union, kickin' and hollerin'. The North had decided that the only perfect union was a whole union, rednecks and all.

The union didn't get noticeably more perfect with the South back in the fold. Things just went squabbling along through the Spanish-American War and World War I. There was a lot more prosperity in the Roaring '20s, but that was spoiled by Prohibition. It wasn't hard to find a drink, but you never knew when your local speakeasy might be raided by Elliot Ness or when you might get caught in a shoot-out between rival bootleggers.

The Great Depression put an end to the Roaring '20s, and that sent perfection for a real loop. But Franklin D. Roosevelt got the idea that he could help us out of the Depression by creating a bunch of alphabet-soup agencies, including the CCC, the PWA, the FSA, and the WPA. I guess he got his idea from his older cousin, Teddy, who created his own alphabet-soup agencies back in the early 1900s.

Well, Franklin really got the ball rolling, and every president since him has added a bunch of alphabet-soup agencies to the executive branch. And when a president has been unable to think of new alphabet-soup agencies, Congress has stepped in and helped him out. (Don't need to say "him or her" yet.) It seems that our politicians think we'll attain perfection when there are enough agencies to use every possible combination of three letters from the alphabet. (That's only 17,576 agencies; we must be getting close to perfection by now.)

During the Great Depression some people began to think that criminals (especially juvenile delinquents) weren't naturally bad. Nope, their criminality was "society's fault" (not enough jobs), and juvenile delinquents could be rehabilitated -- made more perfect, if you will -- through "understanding", which would make model citizens of potential killers. That idea was put on hold during World War II because we needed those former juvenile delinquents and their younger brothers to kill Krauts and Japs. (Oops, spell-checker doesn't like "Japs"; "Nips" is okay, though.)

The idea of rehabilitating JDs through "understanding" took hold after the war. In fact, the idea spread beyond the ranks of juvenile delinquents to encompass every tot and pre-adolescent in the land. Corporal punishment became a no-no. Giving into Johnny and Jill's every whim became a yes-yes. Guess what? What: Johnny and Jill grew up to be voters. Politicians quickly learned not to say "no" to Johnny and Jill's demands for -- whatever -- otherwise Johnny and Jill would throw a fit (and throw a politician out of office). So, politicians just got in the habit of approving things Johnny and Jill asked for. In fact, they even got in the habit of approving things Johnny and Jill might ask for. (Better safe than out of office.) A perfect union, after all, is one that grants our every wish -- isn't it? We're not there yet, but we're trying like hell.

Sometimes you can't attain perfection through legislation. Then you go to court. Remember a few years ago when an Alabama jury awarded millions (millions!) of dollars to the purchaser of a new BMW who discovered that its paint job was not pristine? (Maybe it's true that most Alabamans can't count.) Or how about the small machine-tool company that was sued by a workman who lost three fingers while using (or misusing) the company's product, even though the machine had been rebuilt at least once and had changed hands four times. (Somebody's gotta pay for my stupidity.) Then there was the infamous case in which a jury found in favor of a woman who had burned herself with hot coffee (what did she expect?) dispensed by a fast-food chain.

The upshot of our litigiousness? The politicians elected by Johnny and Jill -- ever in the pursuit of more perfection -- have mandated warning labels for everything. THIS SAW IS SHARP. THIS COFFEE IS HOT. DON'T PUT THIS PLASTIC BAG OVER YOUR HEAD, STUPID. DON'T STICK YOUR HAND DOWN THIS GARBAGE DISPOSAL, YOU MORON. THIS TOY GUN WON'T KILL AN ARMED INTRUDER (HA, HA, HA, YOU GUN NUT!).

You may have noticed a trend in my tale: Politicians quit trying some years ago to perfect the union; their aim is to perfect US. That's why they keep raising cigarette taxes. Everyone knows that smoking is a slovenly redneck habit (movie stars excepted, of course).

Own a gun? Are you nuts? You might be too stupid to handle it properly. What are the police for, after all? Oh, I have a tax-supported security detail and you don't? Well, the members of my security detail needs their guns, of course.

We mustn't hate other people, mustn't we? If you do hate a person, and then you kill that person, you're going to pay extra for it. Why, instead of trying to rehabilitate you we're going to fry your butt. That'll teach you.

Ah, perfection at last.