Monochromatic Outlook employees must wash hands after contact with Washington Post

For the record, I am in favor of handwashing, especially prior to the preparation and/or handling of food.

I’m also good with laws that require restaurants to post signs declaring that employees must wash their hands.

That said, those are not the same two things. Which makes the teaser for the Washington Post article Senator says maybe restaurants shouldn’t make employees wash their hands a falsehood. Frankly, I find it more offensive than any of the remarks attributed to Senator Tillis in the article. Maybe there’s room for a sensational spin in a headline or teaser, but an outright fib is unacceptable.1

The indignation aimed at Senator Tillis and the conflation of what should be done with what the law must enforce raises the question: what kinds of laws do the people who are outraged at Senator Tillis think would be productive? I sometimes wonder how many people understand that laws are not declarations of ideal practices but mechanisms by which a government can (or will, or even must) exact punishment. It’s easy to casually say, «there oughtta be a law.» It’s yet another to insist that someone be carted off to jail by people with guns and badges for a particular act. Yet ultimately, they are the same.

No one in their right mind—and few of those even who are not—would send a busboy to jail for forgetting to wash his hands. But that is the question and ultimately the difference between wrong and unlawful: whether there is a State-enforced punishment for the action or failure to act? I do not believe there are any criminal or civil penalties for an employee failing to wash her or his hands before handling food.2

What is troubling about the Washington Post piece is how completely it makes and reinforces the idea that someone being opposed to a law—ie being opposed to using the institutionalized threat of force to encourage and/or discourage certain practices—is in favor of the practice the law purports to curtail. Senator Tillis made it clear that he believes that public knowledge of a restaurant’s sanitary practices would permit the market to pressure restauranteurs into enforcing food safety practices.3 Perhaps he’s right; this would be a good question to ask the Invisible Santa Bunny. But it’s obvious he’s not taking a stand against food-service workers washing their hands.

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out one’s disagreement with Senator Tillis, either on the specifics of the hand-washing issue or the larger question of whether laws are the best mechanism to promote correct practices. But don’t claim he said something he didn’t to discredit him. It’s a cheap shot, and unneccesary: he’s a politician. Surely he can be discredited on the basis of things he’s actually said.

  1. To make this distinction even less subtle, writing misleading headlines is wrong, but it (usually) shouldn’t be illegal. ↩︎

  2. In the State of California the employer has the sole responsibility. «Any person who violates any provision of this part […] is guilty of a misdemeanor. Each offense shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five dollars ($25) or more than one thousand dollars ($1,000) or by imprisonment in the county jail for a term not exceeding six months, or by both fine and imprisonment. […] The owner, manager, or operator of any food facility is responsible for any violation by an employee.» Excerpted from California Health and Safety Code Part 7. California Retail Food Code Sections 114395 and 114397. ↩︎

  3. Some would say that restauranteurs are in a better position to understand food safety than bureaucrats and legislators. Valid point, except that laws are usually meant to punish the less responsible members of any class of people those laws effect. «The good ones know better than the lawmakers,» is a poor argument against weeding out the bad ones. ↩︎