The case for fewer laws
Many Americans regard America as "a nation of laws." But, more and more, the United States is becoming a nation of too many laws.
Many Americans regard America as "a nation of laws." But, more and more, the United States is becoming a nation of too many laws. Like all laws, some are good, and some are bad. But, as a whole, they are increasingly interfering with the lives of Americans — sometimes in deadly ways.
It reminds me of Iran. When I was still living there, I once stopped at a red light on an empty street. "Why are you stopping?" my friends mockingly asked. It was midnight and there were no cars or people around. This had happened countless times and would happen many more.
For me, there was a simple explanation: It was a law, and it was a good law, so it should be obeyed. My friends had a more practical view: If a law doesn't harm anybody to break it, and if you don't get caught, then why not break it?
There are too many laws in Iran that are absurd by the standard of everyday life: A ban on drinking; a ban on dating before marriage; a ban on any physical interaction between opposite sexes, including handshakes; compulsory hijab; a ban on non-state TV networks; a ban on eating and drinking during Ramadan; persecution for political speech and blasphemy; etc. Worse, people have no power to change such laws. As a result, there is no respect for the law.
The Twitter account A Crime A Day does a great job in outlining purposeless federal laws here in the United States, many of which are unknown to virtually all Americans. Here are some examples:
- 21 USC §§331, 333, 343, 21 CFR §139.150(d) & §139.160(d) make it a federal crime to sell vegetable egg spaghetti that's less than .06 inches in diameter.
- 15 USC §§2614, 2615(b)(1), 40 CFR §§721.11233(b)(1) & 721.125(a) make it a federal crime to make cashew nut shell liquid without keeping records of how much cashew nut shell liquid you've made.
- 21 USC §461 & 9 CFR §381.171(d) make it a crime to sell "Turkey Ham" as "Ham Turkey" or with the words "Turkey" and "Ham" in different fonts.
- 18 USC §1865 & 36 CFR §7.96(b)(3) make it a federal crime to harass a golfer in any national park in Washington, D.C.
- 18 U.S.C. §1865 & 36 C.F.R. §2.15(a)(4) make it a federal crime to let your pet make a noise that scares the wildlife in a national park.
Civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate has done a great job in outlining this problem in his book, Three Felonies A Day. The title reflects his estimate that every day the average American commits three felonies, based on laws "written before the dawn of the Internet, often amended, not always clear, and frequently lagging behind the whipcrack speed of technological change." This led to a Massachusetts man’s being charged for breaking wiretap laws just because he was doing his job as an internet service provider.
Things are even worse on the state level. In New Jersey, there's a ban on pumping one's own gas. In California, you need a license to shampoo hair at a hair salon. In Louisiana, florists need a license to sell flowers. Kids can't even open a lemonade stand without a permit in most states. Examples abound.
If you are a business owner, especially a startup, things get even worse. There are all kinds of workplace, environmental, union, and employee-related regulations that one can easily lose count of and get sued for. These rules work as subsidies for established and large businesses who have the means to hire attorneys to go around them, and they push small and startup firms out of business.
Why are there so many laws? Because Americans are increasingly trying to fix the ills of our society through rulemaking. Unfortunately, rulemaking often just breaks society further. Again, in Iran, where law is what is virtuous in Islam, people are rejecting both law and Islam. Indeed, they drink and eat during Ramadan and have sex before marriage, but they also cross red lights, bribe authorities, and cheat in business if they can get away with it.
What Americans forget, as Iranians have forgotten, is that self-policing is a much better option than the police. Self-policing will not protect everybody from harm because there will always be breakers of laws. But policing, while necessary, cannot replace the need for a virtuous citizenry. There is a greater cost for a society overly regulated by the government than one which is regulated by virtue, shame, and communities.
Reducing the numbers of laws is not a silver bullet. Yet, too often, laws intended to prevent harm end up leading to acts of injustice and diminishing the sanctity of law. We can do better.