TCS Daily

The Coming Boxer Rebellion

By Max Borders - February 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Sic Semper Tyrannis. Such reads the State flag of Virginia. "Thus always to tyrants," it says. The flag features a warrior woman "Virtue" stepping triumphantly upon a fallen despot. Though given the Virginia legislature's recent 60-34 vote to adopt a statewide ban on low-riding pants, perhaps the image of the fallen tyrant should be replaced with a bling-bedizened teenager with his BVDs exposed.

The acerbic media, who quickly dubbed the rule the "droopy drawers" law, has managed to catch the state of Virginia with its pants down. Despite international mockery, violators will nevertheless be fined $50 if they're caught exposing their underwear in a fashion considered lewd by police. The law is destined to become another in a long list of "crazy laws still on the books" that fill pages of toilet-reading glossies everywhere. You know: it's still a crime to sing out of key in North Carolina. Or, in Montana: it's illegal to have a sheep in the cab of your truck without a chaperone.

But perhaps Virginia's new law will serve as another lesson in why regulation doesn't work. (See Bastiat's Seen and the Unseen for more on this. No pun; really.) First, we have to ask if the Virginia Legislature considered the unintended consequences for places like Virginia Beach, where women routinely traipse around in bikinis. Does the law apply in such a case? If not, why not? If so, what will this do to the coastal tourism of Virginia but benefit that of North Carolina? And what about the pasty, middle-aged European tourist who dons Speedos that barely cover his flabby assets? Will he be arrested? Surely this is lewder than a teenager with his boxers exposed.

We can also imagine protesters responding by wearing no underwear at all -- which I realize may be covered by other, similar decency laws. OK then, what about a Spandex body suit airbrushed to look like a naked ass? One can only begin to imagine the creative forms of protest folks will employ to circumvent the law and ask the state kindly to pucker up and kiss its Fruit-of-the-Looms.

On a more serious note, however, the trend is favored mostly by black teenagers in urban areas. Is this going to become an excuse to pick on them -- or worse, to establish "probable cause" for drug searches and other forms of harassment? And even if the law was motivated more by decorum than by racism or anti-drug righteousness, won't this end up backfiring somehow and provide some excuse for the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons to come back out of the woodwork? Heaven forbid.

The droopy drawers law smacks of the same sort of paternalism that has backfired on the French in their efforts to stop Muslims from wearing Islamic headdress in school, or the nanny-state policies of the Brits who tried to ban "repetitive" music in order to stop raves. More importantly, such laws provide further, highly dubious forms of justification for what constitutes legitimate action by the state.

I can already hear the lamentations of certain conservatives: "All we're asking people to do is pull up their pants. What's the big deal?" The big deal is that catching a glimpse of someone's skivvies doesn't hurt you, but fining a kid in the 'hood $50 sure as hell hurts him and his family. Besides, as a tax-paying resident of the state of Virginia myself, I ask respectfully: what gives you the right to tell me how I can wear my britches?

Readers of this publication will not likely disagree about the aesthetic underpinnings of the underpants law. But we should all be very suspicious of the social, political and "moral" motivations for the law, as well as its consequences if it is enforced. Despite how ennobling wearing one's pants around one's waste can be, the government should not be in the business of providing statutory belts. Efforts to enforce cultural norms and to socially engineer matters of taste have a long, long history of failure. And places where such polices have succeeded are marked by legacies of abuse, subjection and tyranny.

        Sic Semper Tyrannis.

Max Borders is a writer in Arlington, Virginia. He prefers boxers to briefs.


TCS Daily Archives