Busybody Fetishes

June 25, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington -- In 1955 Adlai Stevenson, who was the intelligentsia's political pinup and was considered by advanced thinkers to be an advanced thinker, delivered the commencement address to those he called the ''gallant girls'' of Smith College.

He said they had ''a unique opportunity to influence us, man and boy.'' He urged them ''to restore valid, meaningful purpose to life in your home'' and to address the ''crisis in the humble role of housewife.'' He said they could do all this ''in the living room with a baby in your lap, or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hands'' and ''maybe you can even practice your saving arts on that unsuspecting man while he's watching television!''

Any speaker talking like that in, say, 1975 would have been hanged from a branch of one of the campus' stately elms by an enraged regiment of women. Which is to say, 20 years is a long time in modern America.

Values change rapidly, a fact demonstrated last week when the Senate, disregarding the White House's characteristic defense of the way things are, set about undoing some regulations imposed 21 years ago. It was an instructive study in conflicting priorities and changing political fashions.

In 1974, after the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, and the oil embargo and all that, Congress enacted a national speed limit of 55 mph. Safety was one concern, but not nearly as large a concern as the ''energy crisis,'' which supposedly would be eased if everyone drove slower, thereby using less gasoline.

This was the same impulse that led the government to mandate certain fuel-efficiency standards for cars. Those standards encouraged the production of smaller and lighter cars, which are generally less safe than larger cars and certainly have cost lives. The ''moral equivalent of war'' (President Carter's description of the energy crisis) had more than just the moral equivalent of casualties.

The energy crisis went away, partly because the supposedly imminent exhaustion of petroleum reserves was a fiction, partly because producing companies could not maintain their cartel, partly because the U.S government did some deregulating of the energy industry.

The end of the energy crisis made some Americans, mostly liberals, very sad because it had been a grand excuse to boss people around -- telling them what and how fast to drive, where to set their thermostats, how to construct buildings, and so on. However, the national speed limit lived on, justified as a safety measure.

Which it was. It also was one of the most widely disregarded laws: Anyone traveling 55 mph on an Interstate risked the derision of the 95 percent of the drivers rocketing past him, and risked having an 18-wheeler in his back seat.

In 1987 the federal limit was raised to 65 outside of metropolitan areas. This was not good enough for most Americans, who are always in a hurry to get to the next traffic jam, and it especially irritated the easily irritated people living in the fastness of the West, where it can be a 30-mile round trip to get a loaf of bread and people do not want to spend more than 20 minutes doing that.

Out there where men are men, rugged individualists all, they don't like the feds doing much of anything other than subsidizing their electric power and grazing and water, and building the Interstate Highway System on which they soon -- as soon as the House of Representatives gets with the program -- can zoom as fast as their state legislatures will let them.

The speed-limit issue, having been an energy issue and then a safety issue, now is a federalism-Tenth Amendment-states'-rights issue, with anti-paternalism in the bargain.

So are attempts to repeal federal laws that pressure states into requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets and passengers in private vehicles to wear safety belts. (Remember the brief period when cars were built not to start unless seat belts were fastened? Some truculent Americans gave their cars % 5/8 hysterectomies to get rid of that wiring.) The vote to repeal the requirement that highway-distance signs include metric measurements is a heartening sign of national intolerance of the fetishes of busybody elites.

One lesson of all this is that life is precious but not priceless. If it were, we would set the speed limit at 35, ban left turns (they are dangerous) -- and motorcycles, for that matter. And cheeseburgers. And . . .

Another lesson is that the way we see and talk about all sorts of things is conditioned by the ideology of the day, as the grandmothers who were the gallant girls of Smith College's class of 1955 can attest.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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