J.D. Tuccille
"A statesman is a dead politician. Lord knows we need more statesmen." - Opus
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  • by J.D. Tuccille
    March 5, 2008

    There oughta be a law

    Should the U.S. have higher taxes and tighter laws? Specifically, should we adopt the strict regulations touted by some fans of European-style governance?

    Be careful of what you wish for.

    In January, the Travel Channel aired an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, in which the punk-rock chef attended a bash in the hills of Crete. The guests grilled meat, guzzled booze and fired pistols in the air.

    But doesn't Greece have pretty tight gun laws? What were these folks doing waving handguns in front of TV cameras?

    As it turns out, Greece does have strict laws; handguns are tightly restricted, as is handgun ammunition. But lots of Greeks don't pay the law much attention. In 2005, the Greek government estimated that the country's 11 million people own 1.5 million illegal guns.

    There's an important lesson here for Americans prone to say, "there oughta be a law." By international standards, Americans are unusually law-abiding, so it's natural for U.S. fans of European-style laws, taxes and business regulations to assume that the people of Britain, France and Germany actually obey the laws under which they live.

    But that's not always so.

    Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service estimates that the country's 60 million people own as many as four million illegal guns. The German police union and the Forum Waffenrecht, a gun rights group, both peg the number of illegal firearms owned by Germany's 82 million people at 20 million.

    Clearly, many Europeans cheerfully ignore gun laws.

    But guns carry enormous emotional and political baggage; maybe they're a special case. What about ... taxes and regulations? A peek at underground economies around the world reveals the extent to which people of other countries conduct business outside the law -- and how Americans look by comparison.

    By "underground economy" we don't mean explicitly illegal activity like drugs. Instead, we examine activities that would be legal if conducted in plain sight, but which instead takes place in the shadows in order to escape taxes, licensing laws and regulations.

    According to Prof. Friedrich Schneider of the University of Linz, Austria, the U.S., with an underground economy equivalent to 8.4% of official GDP, has the least activity in the shadows among the 21 highly developed members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    Switzerland comes in second at 9.4%. The U.K. clocks in with an underground economy representing 12.2% of GDP. That alternative to "savage capitalism," France, rates at 14.5%. Canada: 15.2%. Germany: 16.8%. Social-democratic Sweden: 18.3%. Greece has an underground economy equal to 28.2% of GDP.

    Everybody dodges taxes, licensing laws and regulations at a higher rate than Americans.

    But why are Americans so law abiding? Are we just a placid bunch, despite our individualist mythology? And does that mean that, even if the French won't obey French-style laws, Americans might?

    Well, Americans have hardly been a bunch of sheep, if history is any guide. Prohibition was no rousing success.

    More recently, underground restaurants have become all the rage around the U.S., catering to adventurous diners beyond the reach of taxes, permits and inspectors. But trendy as they are, these illegal establishments were started for pragmatic reasons. In 2005, former underground restaurateur Michael Hale explained his motives to the North Bay Bohemian:

    "It costs $200,000 just for a permit to be allowed to buy water from the city!" exclaims Hale. "You have to get tons of permits from various people. You've got to get a building permit, a permit if you want to remodel, you have to get licenses for beer and wine, and you have to get certified by the Health Board."
    And in February, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that underground "smokehouses" are thriving in Cleveland in response to new restrictions on smoking and strip clubs. As Cleveland police Detective Tom Shoulders said, "You put too many restrictions on people, they're going to find someplace else to go for their entertainment."

    So Americans are willing and ready to flout the law, if we find it oppressive. Which suggests that we have so far had insufficient reason to match the scofflaw ways of our European counterparts.

    By comparison with most European countries, the U.S. has traditionally been a low-tax, lightly governed place to live and do business. We're not as laissez-faire as some folks claim, and we certainly have intrusive laws, but overall, we have had fewer restrictions to rebel against than the French, Germans and Swedes.

    But in a land where Prohibition failed and where underground restaurants and smokehouses thrive, Americans' comparatively law-abiding nature is almost certainly conditional. If we get the European-style laws and taxes so hankered after by some people, we'll probably get European-style disdain for the law too.

    If that means Anthony-Bourdain-style parties, with meat, booze and guns, some of us will certainly have a good time. But that's probably not what folks saying "there oughta be a law" have in mind.

    Copyright 1999 - 2005 Jerome D. Tuccille. E-mail