Denver's Stress Test
by Ari Armstrong, September 14, 2003
I was simply going to ignore the Denver initiative that asks the city council to "help ensure public safety by increasing peacefulness -- that is, by defusing political, religious and ethnic tensions, both locally and globally -- through the identification and implementation of any systematic, stress-reducing techniques or programs, whether mental, physical, etc. ..." It's just so silly that I didn't think it required comment. But then something almost equally silly happened: the effort generated international press.
For example, in an August 21 column, Larry Elder mocks Jeff Peckman, the guy who got the matter on the ballot. Elder expresses skepticism that government-sponsored meditation might reduce incidents of terrorism. Elder asked Peckman, "What causes you stress, personally?" Peckman replied, "If I miss a night's sleep, get way off the routine, or..." Elder apparently rudely interrupted, thereby surely causing Peckman some stress: "And what should the city do to make sure that you don't miss a night's sleep?" Peckman calmly replied, "Well, that part is my responsibility."
I dusted off my college textbook on psychology, given the stress-free title Psychology, by Carole Wade and Carol Tavris. Here are some of the things found to create stress: death of a spouse, divorce, pregnancy, and marriage. The answer, then, is obvious: Denver should outlaw all romantic relationships, the single greatest source of stress.
I fear Wade and Tavris would dissent. Our authors list all kinds of ways individuals can get ahold of stress and control it. Of course, these things -- exercise, relaxation, and a sense of perspective -- as Peckman intuitively realizes, fall within the realm of personal responsibility, not government action.
We can go a step further. Reducing and controlling stress fundamentally depends upon living a responsible life. Those who tend to plan more carefully, tend not to get into as many stressful situations. Those who take the time to think about their problems tend to learn to control stress better. As Wade and Tavris write (546), "What seems to be most debilitating about chronically stressful situations is the feeling of powerlessness, of having no control over what happens." In short, personal empowerment reduces stress; abdication of personal responsibility increases stress.
Thus, if we take Peckman's initiative to be about passing on to government responsibility to reduce stress, the effort is counter-productive. It only encourages people to take less responsibility for themselves, and further pretend politicians are and should be in control. As Nathaniel Branden writes in Taking Responsibility, "Ultimately, an attitude of self-responsibility must be generated from within the individual. It cannot be 'given' from the outside, just as self-esteem cannot" (191).
But if it is the initiative's lack of specificity that makes it so easy to ridicule, it is also what makes it impossible to completely dismiss. There are indeed a series of steps the Denver city government could take to reduce stress. Specifically, the city could become more libertarian in nature. When people hand over their responsibilities to politicians, the problems do not simply disappear -- generally they grow worse. And people become accustomed to letting other people attempt to deal with their problems.
So there is the psychological impact that people who grow dependent on government become less self-responsible, and thus less able to cope with their own problems. The other problem, of course, is that government often screws things up even worse.
Here are some other things that cause stress, according to Wade and Tavris: imprisonment, daily hassles, poverty, and crime (543-4). Those who live in destabilized neighborhoods "are particularly vulnerable to hypertension and related diseases." Stress is associated with "heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, and immune-related deficiencies."
So what causes imprisonment, poverty, and crime? Largely it is dumb government programs. Particularly, the war on (some) drugs generates massive levels of violence in America. Libertarians argue the government has implemented all kinds of other programs that have perpetuated poverty. Simply the fact that roughly half our income is sucked up by all levels of government is enough to stress the household.
Of course, most of these problems are beyond the scope of city government. However, there are a lot of ways Denver could reduce the size and scope of government, reduce taxation and political regulation, re-legalize victimless activities, and so forth.
The big problem is that about everybody will have a different idea of what the city should do to reduce stress. Thus, should the initiative pass, the best way to avoid stressful debate would be to completely ignore the initiative.
Part of me hopes the initiative passes. That will indicate that people don't take politics seriously anymore. If people stop putting their blind faith in politicians, and start living their own lives, they will better control their stress, and they'll also help to restore the principles of individual liberty and limited government that make possible a progressive, benevolent society.