Thursday, June 18, 2009

Perfecting society, one law at a time

From Washington, D.C., comes news that the Obama administration plans a massive program of new government-imposed financial regulations. Just a week ago, the federal government stepped up its war against people who enjoy games of chance by freezing online poker winnings. And Germany's latest effort to "save the children" involves a nationwide ban on violent video games. It's clear that, for good or ill, we live in a control-minded age. But has anybody stopped to ask the human cost of the growing web of laws in which we're ensnared?

Over 2,000 years ago, Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, warned, "The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government." Even earlier, the Chinese philospher Lao Tzu cautioned, "The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished.... The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be."

For millennia, anybody with a brain has known that weighing people down with laws -- even well-intentioned laws -- is expensive. Regulation extracts a price in wealth, in liberty and in blood. Laws and their enforcement can be tailored to suit well-connected constituencies, providing ample opportunities for bribery and malicious prosecution.

This isn't some abstract problem -- the cost of laws comes with names like John Adams, who was killed during a drug raid on the wrong house, Kathryn Johnston who was gunned down by cops working from a bad tip, and Salvator Culosi, who took an unprovoked bullet during an investigation of sports gambling.

To the ranks of those killed, you can add the many more names of those deprived of property, or imprisoned or otherwise damaged by enforcement of laws that somebody thought were a good idea. People like Linda Dorman, for instance, who was robbed of $4,000 by authorities in Tenaha, Texas, because she couldn't explain the source of the cash to their satisfaction.

Some of these people, like Dorman, Adams and Johnston, were innocent bystanders deprived of life and property during misfired attempts to enforce (or corrupt attempts to misuse) regulations that reach their tentacles deep into people's lives. Others, like Culosi, may have violated laws that they just found obnoxious and unworthy of respect.

The fact is, even the best-intentioned laws will meet some degree of noncompliance. The more contentious the passage of any given law is, the more likely a large segment of the population will defy legislation that many people oppose. That means plenty of contact between the public and enforcers, with handcuffs, bars and bullets potentially in store for people who might be your friends, neighbors or family.

The income tax in the United States has a relatively high rate of compliance by world standards at 84%. That still means millions of people are at risk of conflict with the Internal Revenue Service.

About 42% of Americans have smoked marijuana, and about 16% used cocaine, despite the illegality of both.

Teens risk child pornography charges for sending nude pictures of themselves to their friends, yet 20% of them still engage in the practice.

And European gun control laws, sometimes pointed out as models for the United States, have actually resulted in a situation where many more guns are held illegally than legally, by significant percentages of the population.

Even petty smoking bans have bred an underground culture of smokeasies where people puff away, risking violent arrest at the hands of authorities claiming concern for improving the public's health.

Such widespread defiance of laws breeds escalated enforcement efforts by the authorities. Policing becomes more drastic, more intrusive, more violent -- and always less just. People go to prison, assets are seized, businesses destroyed, and some folks are killed, all in the name of somehow making the world a better place with just one more law. Some of the people paying the price will be "criminals." Others are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We certainly need some rules of the game to deter the predators among us. A grim price is worth the protection we hope to receive from murderers, rapists, muggers and the like.

But any proposal for a new law (or for maintaining an old one) should come with a question attached: How many people are you willing to kill to see this enforced?

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