Surprise! Government has a role after all


October 26, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

GOVERNMENT HAS taken a beating in recent years. Without question, a lot of the disparagement directed at local, state and federal officials is for good reason.

But some carping critics, including many of the folks on talk radio, have implied that we would be better off without government. "Get government off our backs" is a rallying cry for conservatives.

That is why it should come as a surprise that some of the most conservative voices in Howard County are calling for the big foot of government to squash the marketplace's invisible hand for businesses they find objectionable.

There are good reasons for the "Big G" to seek tougher regulations for massage parlors suspected as fronts for prostitution or adult book stores that move in next to the family-friendly Dunkin Donut shop.

Republican hypocrisy

Republicans who reflexively criticize big government intervention sound hypocritical when they call for tighter controls on the marketplace when the market is not to their liking.

Action by conservative Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown prompted legislation on adult book and video stores, mostly to protect his Ellicott City district from such businesses after the Pack Shack opened with screaming signs along U.S. 40.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a moderate Republican, drafted a law so tough it would regulate massage parlors out of business. The cross-gender ban would prohibit parlors from allowing non-certified female employees from massaging men, defeating these parlors' reason for being. Here, to regulate is to destroy.

It doesn't stop there. Mr. Ecker wants to tighten restrictions on pawn shops, tattoo parlors, strip-tease bars and fortune-telling establishments.

Morality month

No wonder some county officials are calling this "morality month."

To be sure, government should monitor and at least consider how they want their communities to develop, as long as it respects constitutional safeguards.

The spread of adult business is a real concern for suburban jurisdictions these days, as residents who patronize these establishments seek convenience.

As University of Maryland criminology Professor Lawrence Sherman remarked in The Sun recently: "Getting sex in the suburbs is now like getting groceries."

Governing magazine cited the case of a small town in Rhode Island.

When the city of Providence cracked down on X-rated businesses, the industry looked toward the suburbs. The industry found Johnston, a town of 30,000 that borders the New England city.

Mario's, an ordinary Italian restaurant, applied for an entertainment license, saying it wanted to provide soft dinner music to patrons. A reasonable request, replied the town council, which granted the license.

You can imagine how duped council members felt when Mario's blackened its windows and put nude dancing girls on stage.

Here come the SOBs

So-called SOBs -- sexually oriented businesses -- are moving into the suburbs, both to follow their customers and in response to cities that are trying to rid themselves of these enterprises.

This area is no exception. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has sought for years to bust The Block in Baltimore -- Blaze Starr's former stomping grounds. The once-famous strip of show bars now is considered a barrier to economic growth in nearby commercial towers. The suburbs are a logical destination for adult businesses with a solid market.

As the Governing article points out, places that believe X-rated businesses are coming their way and want to control them can either concentrate these businesses in one zone to protect most communities, or disperse them so that no single area is unfairly affected.

There is a third, more Republican option: Do nothing at all and let the marketplace take care of itself.

When it comes to adult businesses, however, some conservatives drop their non-intervention rhetoric and turn their backs on Adam Smith.

Mr. Drown went well beyond the philosophy of unfettered free enterprise to monarchy with his statement that if he were king, adult bookstores would not exist anywhere.

Lacking a throne and crown, Messrs. Drown and Ecker have chosen a big government approach to regulating the businesses they don't believe is good for Howard County.

Their actions are an admission that government intervention is not something to patently despise.

Unfortunately, their appreciation for this interference only comes on moralistic issues. Conservatives often revert to anti-government sound bites when it comes to regulations to improve water and air quality, job safety and labor practices.

They are anti-government -- as long as it does not conflict with their moral notions.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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