The debate this session in the Maine Legislature over an online privacy bill is, unfortunately, an excellent example of several common phenomena that undermine the effectiveness of our part-time Legislature.

One is a desire to enact sweeping, massive change quickly, rather than taking a more reasoned, measured approach. This stems from an instinct in legislators to immediately tackle an entire problem, rather than taking it one step at a time to address particular issues. In the case of the online privacy bill, it’s especially troubling that the Judiciary Committee took this approach; the particular policy area is a complex one that governments all around the world are struggling to address. It’s not an area that Maine’s government is particularly well-equipped to handle, and it was wise for the only Republican to oppose it in committee.

A big part of the reason for that is that Maine, unlike other larger states with larger populations and larger economies, is small enough for global corporations to simply ignore. If, say, California or Texas were to enact a sweeping new regulatory measure, companies would have to adapt or fight it. California, with its annual gross domestic product, is on a similar economic scale to the United Kingdom; Texas and New York are comparable to Canada and South Korea.

Maine? We’re more like Panama.

When put in those global terms, it’s easy to see why huge corporations like Apple or Facebook could simply ignore a territory the size of Maine if it becomes too much trouble to do business here. Alternatively, they could shift the cost of complying with our new law to Maine consumers, treating customers here differently than elsewhere. Mainers can ill afford any increased costs.

On the opposite side of the formula, imposing unique regulations will hurt the ability of Maine’s large companies to compete globally. We hardly have a surplus of huge corporations that choose to be headquartered here; we shouldn’t make it any harder for them to exist than it already is. It would be relatively easy for our own large corporations to relocate. They probably wouldn’t do it overnight, or in response to one particular new law, but the more the state does to make their lives harder, the likelier it becomes in the long run. While the state shouldn’t always do everything our big businesses want, we shouldn’t go out of our way to hinder them, either. Our economic position is precarious enough as is; we need to work to improve our standing rather than seeing it slip even further.

A state of Maine’s population and economic resources shouldn’t try to implement sweeping new laws that could wind up being too costly or impractical. Just as larger states have a bigger role to play in the global economy, they have the resources to defend their laws and regulations all the way to the Supreme Court. Any innovative new law is likely to wind up in court at some point, so let’s let one of the larger states try it first. They can bear the initial burden. If it proves legally sound and effective, Maine can later adopt it in whole or in part.

Apart from the potential unintended consequences that a small state is less likely to be able to bear, a more reasonable measure would have been more likely to find bipartisan support. Instead, by going too far, too fast, the entire issue has immediately become yet another partisan (and probably legal) fight, possibly foiling more measured proposals in the future. If that’s the case, we may find ourselves rapidly back at square one without making any progress at all.

It’s all well and good for Maine to take its state motto, Dirigo (“I lead” in Latin), seriously. Real leadership, though, doesn’t require unnecessary risks to simply be first on something; that’s mere foolhardiness. Real leadership is taking a measured approach to assess solutions that work for our state, regardless of whether they’re brand-new or simply a tweaking of existing measures in place elsewhere. The former creates pointless new partisan fights; the latter may lead to real solutions.

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