Some facts continue to surprise me whenever I read history. Just this week I learned that our British counterparts didn’t have universal male suffrage until 1918, less than 100 years ago. Property requirements had restricted about half of the male population from having a vote in Great Britain until then.
The United States didn’t start out its experiment with democracy with universal male suffrage, property rights restricted the vote for many men in the early United States. Given the variance between the states, male suffrage was a piecemeal affair in the United States impacted greatly by race and ethnicity. Although the United States led the way, by 1918 Great Britain had not only caught up, they gave women voting rights as well. The United States was two years behind in passing the 19th Amendment allowing all to vote in 1920.
These events occurred in the recent past, within my grandparent’s lifetime. This is rapid societal and legal change.
But what else has changed in the past 100 years? Well, less than 100 years ago, only 1% of the homes in the United States had both electricity and indoor plumbing. The thought that I could sit at a brightly lit desk at 4:00 a.m. with the temperature outside at 22 degrees, write a newspaper column in my slippers, and have it at the newspaper by 6:00 a.m. without leaving my house would have been inconceivable.
Want to know why you don’t have to freeze to walk out to the outhouse at 4:00 a.m. on a winter morning? Plumbing and building codes. Those little pesky regulations transformed our world in less than a century and they are continuing to do so.
Want to know why your house is heated and you don’t have to go shovel coal to stay warm? Utility regulation. This one is near and dear to me, because just 25 years ago I lived in a house with a coal furnace. Shoveling coal, cleaning out the clinkers, and getting dirty just to stay warm was a daily task throughout the winter. For those who don’t know, clinkers are the parts of the coal that don’t burn and have to be pulled out of the furnace. Natural gas is much better. Trust me.
Today, the people in Flint Michigan are bemoaning the failure of the regulations regarding potable water, but when was the last time you really worried about getting sick from taking a drink out of your water tap? At least a few decades I would guess, depending on your age.
I could go on -- food safety, disease control, zoning, automobile safety, and even our entertainment is a product of laws and regulations that did not exist in their current form one hundred years ago. The net impact of all this change should be a reason for optimism, not pessimism. Our laws have literally aided in transforming our world. Maintaining the laws will help us continue our unprecedented march forward as human beings.
Heading into an election year, everyone is pushing their candidates and agendas, so I thought a little perspective was warranted. Using our laws and our ideas, human beings have transformed a very harsh and often unforgiving planet into a place where we can live more comfortably and safely than any time in history. We just don’t notice because the results engulf us in the legal warmth of our past successes.