By disposition, I am much more interested in calling attention to what’s right with America, especially at a moment when the professional hand-wringers are out in force. But every now and then I come across something so absurd, and so utterly typical of the bad things that are nipping at the heels of this great country, that I have to throw up my hands in exasperation.

Consider this episode from Strasburg, Illinois. Like many other municipalities across the country, Strasburg has been hit hard by the recent economic turmoil. So when the Stewardson-Strasburg school district needed a new electric sign, it seemed like good old American ingenuity–not to mention good old American volunteerism and generosity–when members of a local booster club raised some dough, bought a sign, and rounded up some folks to put up the sign free and for nothing. Good going, right? Wrong. At least, wrong if you are a meddlesome state bureaucrat with the Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL) and are charged with enforcing the state’s Prevailing Wage Act.

Prevailing Wage what? Yes, that’s right folks, the unions and the duly elected representatives in Illinois have gotten together and promulgated a stupid law that, in essence, makes donating money or labor a crime. They don’t put it quite like that, of course. Instead, they sit in their offices of circumlocution sucking on the public teat and tell people that “laborers, workers and mechanics employed on public works construction projects [must be paid] no less than the general prevailing rate of wages (consisting of hourly cash wages plus fringe benefits) for work of a similar character in the county where the work is performed.”How’s that for stifling freedom, stamping out frugality, and basically giving voluntarism a bad name? [UPDATE: Just to clarify, a couple of employees of the company that from which the sign was purchased also helped: they were paid, but not at the prevailing wage.]

Quoth Angie Helmuth, president of Supporters of Stewardson-Strasburg, “We’re just a small community trying to do what’s right, and now I’ve got to go through all of this.”

I feel for her. As the Canadian journalist Ezra Levant, who was harassed by the so-called “Human Rights Commission” in Canada for publishing those infamous Danish cartoons of Mohammad, put it “the process is the punishment.” On one side you have these preposterous petty tyrants (in the case of IDOL, they’re called “conciliators”–how George Orwell would have like that!) armed with the power of the state, on the other side you have individuals and local communities endeavoring to stand on their own two feet and live their lives without “bailouts” and unmolested by state interference.

But such autonomy is the one thing these miniature despots can’t abide. They don’t want people to be independent. They don’t want local communities to take care of their own needs. They want to meddle. They want to be the sole source of sustenance and labor–and they want to do it, of course, on their own terms, enforcing their own requirements for who gets to work, when, under what conditions, and how much they are paid. This, as Friedrich Hayek observed, is the road to serfdom. As Hayek put it in the great book of that title, “economic control is not merely the control of a sector of human life . . . ; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower–in short, what men should believe and strive for.” It is, in short, a form of tyranny.

Ms Helmuth got the message. She called an IDOL official about the case of the donated sign: “Now you’re telling me anything that was donated, I would have to pay prevailing wage on it? Then why would I want to donate anything?” Why, indeed.

Meanwhile, President-elect Obama is waiting in the wings with his plans for various “mandatory volunteer” programs. Depressing prospect, what?

Here’s a possible silver-lining moment: all those state officials are elected. Sooner or later, they will come up for reelection. If I lived in Strasburg, Illinois, I would give up volunteering for anything except initiatives to turn the bums out of office.