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Breaking the law

Glenn Reynolds has an interesting article at his other blog about breaking the law, and the simultaneous growth and loss of legitimacy of the regulatory state.

There are too many laws — many of them contradictory or obscure — for any person to actually avoid breaking the law completely. (My Criminal Law professor, when I was a law student, announced to us that we were all felons on the first day of class. There were too many felonies on the books for us not to be: Oral sex in Georgia? Oops!) And given that many laws are dumb, actually following all of them would probably bring society to a standstill, just as Air Traffic Controllers and pilots can make air travel grind to a halt by meticulously following every safety rule without exception.

Stop and think about that for a minute. What does it say about a society, when strict adherence to its laws would be an unmitigated disaster?

The other problem is that law is like anything else: when the supply outstrips the demand, its value falls. If law were restricted to things like rape, robbery, and murder, its prestige would be higher. When we make felonies out of trivial crimes, though, the law loses prestige. As the old bumper stickers about the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit used to say: “It’s not a good idea. It’s just the law.”

Instawisdom, in my book.

16 comments to Breaking the law

  • Dave O'Neill

    Speeding is a strange one though.

    Driving at 100mpg on a straight motorway/freeway isn’t much of a safety risk.

    Driving at 40mph through a town centre or past a school is stupid. (NB: I’m referring to British style roads, not necessarily US ones here.)

    I’d be interested to see an approach to traffic law which was (a) simple and (b) consistent – rather than the GATSO nuttiness we’ve got now.

  • One interesting consequence of the plethora of laws and the discretional power necessarily awarded to those who police such laws (from police officers right down to local authority enforcement officers) is that they create an incentive for corruption. Another is that they can leave ordinary individuals vulnerable to personal vendettas. If you happen to piss off a police officer, planning officer, environmental health officer etc. they have the tools to make your life a complete misery.

  • rkb

    Yes — and in the eyes of some, THAT’S THE INTENT.

  • Frank is so right. I read these new laws as they come down the pipe and it is alarming to note how widely and vaguely they are drafted.

    They are really ‘laws’ they are ‘enabling provisions’ that equip the state to prosecute (and persecute) you or not as they please. Most of the time they will probably leave most people well alone but if they want to get you they can get you.

    The result is that nobody quite knows where they stand and this precipitates a general mood of paranoia and uncertainty because you can never be sure where the ‘line’ is.

    We live not under the rule of law but the grace and favour of our rulers.

  • Aaaargghhhh…

    Above should read:

    ‘They are NOT really laws…’

    (Preview is my friend…preview is my friend…preview is my friend….)

  • And this is why I frequently urge people to find ways to not cooperate, to in effect, break the law whenever practicle when laws have no moral basis. When confronted by a regulatory state which seeks to replace social interaction with political interaction at all turns, it cannot be overstated how important it is to spread the meme that The Law and Morality are two completely different things.

  • ernest young

    Nothing new, it was just like this thirty years ago, only difference was that they (the Enemy), were not quite so blatant about it..

    As I have always had a problem with authority, I experienced many a personal vendetta with local government officials.

  • David R Beatty

    I saw that article on Glenn’s other blog, as well. He hit the nail on the head, with a sledgehammer no less!

    Instawisdom, indeed!

  • I agree that in the U.S. everyone is a criminal. Every single day on I-395 in Northern Virginia, just about every single car is breaking the speed limit.

    I sent a letter to my State Senator complaining about the fact that we have laws that no one obeys… why not raise the speed limits? Her response was that the speed laws follow standard procedure. Yes, I know it’s standard that the speed limits are set too low! That’s why I was writing to my state legislator, to hopefully get it changed!

    I’d go out and vote on Nov 4 just to vote against here, except that I don’t like her opponent either. We have no real choice in our elections in the U.S.

  • Julian Morrison

    In the USA as I recall speed limits are one of the things set by “tied funding” (the fedgov robs you, then gives a little back to the stategov – with strings attached, including speed limit and drinking age).

    Go join the FSP in NH, since refusing federal “tied funding” is on their todo list.

  • R. C. Dean

    You are correct, Julian. The latest outrage from tied funding is that the states are being forced to reduce their drunk driving levels from .10 BAC to .08 BAC.

  • Marshall Clow

    I hear an echo in here!

    “For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret
    that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”
    — Albert Einstein, “My First Impression of the U.S.A.”, 1921

  • none

    A good piece. I have some slight cavils and elaborations, though. Reynolds says:

    “The only real control over whether prosecutors charge someone with something silly-but-illegal is their fear of bad publicity, and juries’ unwillingness to convict even guilty people when they think that doing so is unfair.”

    No doubt it is true that prosecutors fear being made to look silly by bringing obviously weak and unfair cases to court. I’d be interested to know, though, how often juries exonerate. It seems to be human nature to reason that if a person is hauled into court, and well-spoken men in expensive suits say the person did something wrong, why then the person must be guilty.

    Also, it also is tragically common for prosecutors to press charges when NOT prosecuting might expose them to bad publicity. A prosecutor might realize, for example, that a given charge of child molestation or investor fraud is utter nonsense. But if the media have bayed and howled sufficiently over a given instance of the sin du jour, prosecutors will be afraid NOT to prosecute. There is also the matter of prosecutors who want convictions in certain cases because they are more electable if they’ve put on a good show for the baying and howling public.

    Not pretty thoughts, any of them. But unfortunately, all true.

  • Cydonia

    Dave O’Neill

    The sensible answer is to privatise the roads and let the owner (and his customers) decide on the rules of use. Market forces would then ensure that the rules reflect demand. So you might see some rules with special “safe” lanes for families. Other roads might be reserved for drunken hot rodders

    Nor would any kind of punishments be needed to enforce the rules. The sanction for breaking the rules would simply be a big deduction from your credit card, or a ban (temporary or permanent).

    Insurance ceases to be a problem either. You either wouldn’t be allowed on the road without it, or you could buy it from the road owner (or maybe the road owner would have a special cheap and dangerous lane for non-insured drivers)

    Let your imagination run free ….

  • Cydonia:

    If the roads are privatized, who pays for the upkeep? Are we going to have to suffer tollbooths every ten yards?


    “I’d be interested to know, though, how often juries exonerate.”

    You mean, like O.J. Simpson?

    Not often enough, unfortunately. OJ was a classic case of jury nullification — the bastard was clearly guilty, and the verdict an equally-clear statement of public hatred of The Law.

    Which is why lawyers get fined for even mentioning the term in the courtroom.

  • Cydonia


    I was particularly talking about inter-state highways (what we call motorways in England). There’s no particular problem there – see e.g. France where there are booths at the exits. It works fine.

    Urban roads are trickier, although modern technology will probably make booths redundant soon. Also, in urban areas, road owners would likely form consortia, so one ticket would cover a large area of roads. All guesswork, of course, as it is hard to predict how the ingenuity of the market will pan out.