“There’s No Way to Rule Innocent Men” Redux
Last week, Martha Stewart was convicted of lying to federal investigators about a crime with which she was never charged. Most analysts agree that prosecutors never charged Stewart with the crime of insider trading because it’s a law too complicated for most jurors to understand.
Putting your personal opinion of Stewart aside for a moment, the case prompts larger questions about the laws and regulations that govern our land: If jurors can’t understand a law well enough to determine if someone broke it, just how do lawmakers expect citizens to understand it enough to obey it? Do we really want to live in a country where good-intentioned people are required to pay high-priced attorneys to tell them whether or not they’re breaking the law?
America has too many laws, and the laws we do have are tedious, overly complex and sometimes not only impossible to understand, but impossible to comply with. Our elected officials pass laws in fits of whimsy, responding to the latest scare headlines, demands from interest groups or data from polling firms. Reason, freedom or constitutional authority rarely enter into the debate.
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary” – Henry Louis Mencken.
Now think upon the words of the ancient Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus: “Corruptissima res publica plurimae leges.” (The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”)
The Federal Registry (search), which records all of the regulations the federal government imposes on businesses (all of which carry the force of law), now exceeds 75,000 pages.
It’s even worse with regulation. With the EPA, for example, it’s often impossible for corporations in some industries to abide by one environmental regulation without violating another. That’s fertile ground for corruption, particularly when the same body is charged with making, enforcing and adjudicating the law.
And then there’s the Rand quote from Atlas Shrugged:
There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted — and you create a nation of law-breakers — and then you cash in on the guilt. Now that’s the system!
It certainly appears to be. And now Congress has done it to itself, in some small degree:
Although Congress generally exempts itself from most of the laws it passes, this law (the McCain-Feingold
Incumbent ProtectionBipartisan Campaign Reform Act) applies specifically to Congress. The same congressmen who voted for the bill were now required to abide by it. Faced themselves with the burden of complying with the complex, inches-thick laws they pass for others, both parties were forced to hold education sessions with specialty lawyers explaining to them what they could and couldn’t do under the new law. A lawyer who taught the Democrats told The New York Times that his seminars elicited “a sort of slack-jawed amazement at how far this thing reached.” A lawyer who taught the Republicans said: “There’s an initial stage where the reaction is, ‘This can’t be true.’ And then there’s the actual anger stage.” Democratic Rep. Henry Matsui, who championed the bill, told the Times, “I didn’t realize all that was in it.”
That’s how much careful consideration Congress gave a bill it passed that applied to itself. Now imagine how little thought and care goes into bills it passes that apply to everyone else.
The answer, of course, is none.
Now they get some idea of the reaction of those of us “little people” in the flyover states when they pass this stuff without a thought.
No wonder Teddy Kennedy is worried about the limousine-armor-piercing capabilities of the .30-30 cartridge, eh?
We have the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, as long as we remain honest – which will be as long as we can keep the attention of our people alive. If they once become inattentive to public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors would all become wolves. – Thomas Jefferson
Nice idea Mr. Jefferson. But it didn’t last.