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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Response to silly laws

Desperate governments do the darnedest things. Politicians pass law after law, one on top of the other. Eventually, the laws get so overbearing, contradictory, and down right silly, that people ignore them.

Governments lose the ability to enforce the laws. From Ireland to Greece people are ignoring new taxes and austerity laws. On a more prosaic level, how many of us break the speed limit? Fudge on our taxes? Ever barter or pay cash for something, cutting the government out of the loop?

Often new laws have unintended consequences. People who didn’t mind paying a small tax or fee, will balk at paying big money. In the end revenues go down not up. That always ends badly for governments. The Roman Empire taxed farms so heavily that it wasn’t worth working them and they were abandoned. That was at a time when Rome really needed the food. Expect that sort of stupidity in the dying days of empires.

What about the poor cop on the street? He’s the guy who’s supposed to enforce those laws. Law looks a lot different in the street than it does in Washington. The cop knows he’s only got so many resources so he’ll pick and choose what to enforce. Lot’s of “B. S. laws” get ignored. At the extreme the LEO knows some of those dumb laws could get him killed.

Civil disobedience can overwhelm the system. That’s one of the tactics of mass protest.

Even individuals can muck up the system. I had an uncle who was audited by the I.R.S. year after year. He looked forward to it. It was one of the things he did for fun and profit. Yes, profit. He’d wear the auditors down and in the end they’d let him get away with a lot just to get rid of him. They aren’t used to fighting against people who don’t fear them. Eventually, they didn’t even audit him anymore. My uncle was disappointed.

It’s illegal to be poor in the US. Sit in at your local courtroom sometime. Case after case it’s people who did some like violate some insurance requirement or had “defective” equipment on their vehicles. When you live paycheck to paycheck, something simple as minor car repairs can break the budget. I know what’s it’s like to drive an “illegal” vehicle, hoping to make it to payday. I had to drive to get to the job, but the job didn’t pay enough to keep the car in tip top shape.

Now they want to make it illegal to not carry health insurance. If the requirement stands up in court, it won’t stand up on the street. People without health insurance don’t have it because they want to be a burden to society. They just can’t afford it. You can’t get blood out of a stone.

Laws get ignored so more laws are passed. Governments believe that the new laws will do the trick, or better enforcement is the key. Rarely do they admit that the original law was the real problem.

Stupid unenforceable laws condition people to seek ways around them. Day by day respect for the government is lost. Eventually, there’s a government that has very little influence outside of the capital. For example, take Harmid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan. He’s often called “The Mayor of Kabul,” because that’s about how far his real influence reaches. The reality out in the provinces is totally different than the reality in the capital.

Historically, governments have collapsed under the burden of unenforceable laws. The invading barbarians just finished the job. The only historical exception to this, that I’m aware of, is the Eastern Roman Empire. They reached the point where laws and centralization could no longer be enforced and maintained. Their response was for the central government to do less. More authority was given up to the outer reaches. Things got a lot simpler, but the empire endured.

The federal government could follow that historical example: shorten its reach, let power flow back to the states then, to the counties, cities and towns. It could narrow its ambitions. Instead of policing the world, it could police its own borders.

So how are we going to bet? More silly burdensome laws and we go the way of the Western Roman Empire, or decentralization and we follow the Eastern Roman Empire?



  1. Speaking of silly laws, have you had a chance to read SurvivalAcres blog entry on Labor Department ban on children working on farms (even their own!) because of child labor restrictions? The Labor Department is tripping!

  2. How many family farms can obey such laws -and stay in business. Looks good for the big factory farms though.

  3. Well said Mr Sixbears.
    Thoreau would endorse your sentiments I'm sure.
    And I do...

  4. Thank you Mr. Flying Tortoise. High praise.

  5. I nominate this for your best post ever.

  6. There's a couple of interesting books that cover these things. Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies talks a lot about Rome and Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome, A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 also provides interesting details.

    If you send me your address I will mail them to you for a summer reading loan

    I'm at cobequids on gmail.

    I have just dipped into Francis Fukiyama and the Origins of Political Order. Same issues. How much governance can the people stand?

    Thanks . . . Alan