SALT LAKE CITY — It’s referred to as the slippery slope and can be summarized like this: What is the role of government in enforcing private behavior?
The question is a moving target this session for state lawmakers facing a variety of bills that deal with the question.
The issues range from extending seat belt restraints to limits on smoking in vehicles in the presence of a child, as well as the question of whether the state needs to be involved in licensing various businesses.
Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, says the issue of personal freedom versus government intervention is not new on the Hill.
He prefers calling the problem “incrementalism.”
“It’s like the camel’s nose moving into the tent — the government continually and increasingly violates individual liberty,” Boyack says.
“I don’t see this concept being any more an issue this session than in past sessions. While some bills are defeated on this type of argument, many more are passed to which the same argument applies, but which aren’t controversial or problematic enough to be opposed.”
Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, doesn’t think government should be used to change behavior.
He points to the evolution of seat belt use as an illustration. When seat belts were first mandated by state law, failure to use the safety device was classified as a secondary offense.
This year, there is legislation that would make failure to use seat belts in high-speed zones a primary offense.
“We have been on the slippery slope of eroding personal freedoms for some time,” Peterson said. “This is the slow creep of government intrusion that we need to be wary of.”
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, argues some of the legislation comes from a natural inclination by lawmakers to be seen as doing something to address problems. He said the byproduct of that instinct is growth in government control.
“It generally happens easily, feels natural and proceeds unhindered,” Nielson said.
And bucking the trend can be difficult, he added.
“Those that attempt to do so are trying to enhance or preserve individual liberty, but are often characterized as extreme, outmoded or lacking compassion.”
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, knows the slippery slope arguments well. He said he has learned to look at each bill individually.
Ray believes there is a role for government in protecting rights and said that becomes evident in some matters of public health.
“Hopefully, you’re protecting people from other people,” Ray said.
He takes on the issue of mandatory seat belt use — used by some who argue about the slippery slope — and said not using the seat belt can pose a danger to others if someone is ejected from a vehicle in an accident or is unable to maintain their position behind the wheel in the event of a problem.
“There are certain things government is supposed to do,” Ray said.
One lawmaker argues it could be much worse.
“We need to be continually vigilant to protect individual liberties. Frankly, it’s good that the Legislature is only in session 45 days a year. The tendency is to pass legislation because we can,” said Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton.
He said a former legislator once told him that every time a bill is passed, someone’s personal liberty is impacted.
Rep. Stewart Barlow, R-Fruit Heights, said it is important to regularly assess the issue of freedom versus government intervention.
He wonders, for example, if the state’s licensure efforts are needed to the extent that they exist now.
“Do we really need to license someone who braids hair?”