Don't Just Stand There, Do Nothing

Like many others across the nation, I watched television reports yesterday concerning the porch 'avalanche' in Chicago 's Lincoln Park neighborhood. I live about three miles from where the tragedy occurred. As I was reading about it this morning, I came across a passage that was all too familiar. The paragraph contained a quote from the building commissioner: 'The latest collapse of a third-floor porch early Sunday was believed the deadliest in Chicago history, prompting Reyes to call for a fresh look at building codes. 'We need to review the ordinances,' she said, adding the city needs to look at whether weight limits should be imposed on porches.'

This is exactly how our government has gone from being a night watchman to a nine million member leviathan. When a crisis occurs, it appears the simultaneous response is to widen the breadth of the state. This process will never end. The state exists to perpetuate itself. If nine pounds of regulations aren't enough, they'll add another 30 in as the proposed solution. What government monitors today they will own tomorrow. The 12 deaths over the weekend may prove to be just another example of the way in which government will increase its size at any opportunity. Once government has a foothold, it immediately begins to replicate itself and it grows and grows.

I've been at many an apartment in the city and on many a landing, and I can testify that they are usually not made of concrete. They certainly do not radiate security, but they weren't designed to accommodate a Lollapalooza or Woodstock . They are functional. They were built for the apartment's residents either to relax upon or to provide a mechanism for their escape in the case of fire.

I feel very sorry for those who died, but risk is part of our lives and I think the immature assumption that somehow government, with their litigious and incarcerating fingers, can bring good to this particular situation is asinine. Building codes will never specify that verandas attached to two bedroom units should accommodate 60 persons. We have to take some responsibility for our own lives and realize that some situations must be avoided. Just as one wouldn't attempt to run across Lakeshore Drive , one shouldn't participate in stadium seating at a three-flat rental property. There is no need for government to get involved.

The event itself has, in many ways, already solved the crisis. The widespread publicity the calamity attracted will result in far more vigilance on the part of average citizens than any new law or regulation. This is a rare instance of media coverage being beneficial. People, at least for awhile, will think twice before putting 5,000 pounds of human mass onto a fire escape landing. The city forcing landlords to place small signs reading 'Maximum Occupancy 3' or '500 pound limit' onto every building will only accomplish an increase in man-hours and an increase the size of the city's enormous budget. What would please the commissioner? Would every porch being made of concrete solve the problem? Perhaps it would, but then new problems may emerge. Such an ordinance could create chaos, as the landlords who tore deviant wooden porches down would instantly violate already existing ordinances mandating the presence of fire escapes.

What would this achieve other than to further fill the city's coffers? The law of unintended consequences is beyond the comprehension of our city's political appointees.

This is just another situation where we as taxpayers sit and wait for more rash and impudent legislation to careen at us like Oddjob's hat in a James Bond movie. Disaster and its corresponding legislation is a ritual seemingly without end. When will government learn that you cannot legislate common sense? Ultimately one of these gargantuan bureaucrats will attempt to declare 'a war on death' which will alert their constituency as to how little they understand about the human condition and how much we'd all benefit from the expiration of our bureaucracy.

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Columns on STR: 33

Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.