Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why so many laws?

Since the Magna Carta of 1215 became the foundation for the rule of law for constitutional democracies, laws and hundreds of thousands of them have been enacted over the centuries. Even dictatorial or autocratic regimes arguably could be said to be ruled by laws, except that these laws could be changed on the whims of the ruler whose powers are absolute and could not be restrained by anyone, and which by no means is the intent of the doctrine of the rule of law.

In addition to laws enacted by Parliament or Congress, there are also ordinances, by-laws, and regulations passed by city or municipal governments and their local councils. And we’re just talking about public laws, exclusive of those rules adopted privately by corporations or nongovernmental organizations.

The Canadian government, for instance, is planning to table legislation in Parliament this fall for laws to toughen sentencing for crimes committed by young offenders. As if we didn’t have enough laws on crime already. The federal government is responsible for the Criminal Code and of 16 or more related statutes such as the Canada Evidence Act, Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, DNA Identifications Act, and Firearms Act. In addition to federal laws on crime, the provinces have their own statutes on offences concerning driving on roads and highways, sale and consumption of liquor, parking and standing on streets, littering and loitering, and a thousand more that either restrict or regulate what individuals or corporations can or cannot do.

Why are we so law-driven? This impulse to enact a law every time a human activity needs to be either expanded or restricted seems irrepressible. We are addicted to laws, and making more laws seems like an effective performance-enhancing drug.

In the past, the Bible, the Koran, or codes or decrees issued by kings or emperors, or even the Golden Rule, were sufficient to govern human conduct. Even in much earlier times, tribal councils or an assembly of elders simply used common sense, and the very basic concepts of fairness and justice in resolving conflicts among their members. There was no necessity to record their decisions and codify them into say, laws of the tribes that can be referred to in determining future conflicts. Life then was so simple and human problems required straightforward answers.

As societies progressed through the centuries, written laws became necessary to define the limits of government, the rights of individuals and corporations, and to draw limits to socially-acceptable human behaviour, beyond which penalties such as imprisonment or fines would be imposed as punishment for crossing those limits.

Progress brought prosperity, but along with it came a host of new problems. For every new problem is an equal response in the form of a new law, rule or regulation. This new law could then be repealed if it became obsolete and unresponsive to the needs of the time, thus giving birth to newer laws. So the process of lawmaking continues every time there is a need or demand which, of late, seems to never run out.

But there is an irony in this pattern of societal growth. The more we grow as a society, the faster we jettison our fundamental concepts of fairness, justice and even common sense in reining in our excesses as human beings. At this stage of our human development, we should by now be cognizant of those acceptable standards and boundaries of human behaviour. We should, by this time, also be capable of self-policing or self-regulating our conduct like children who have grown to maturity and sound mind.

Take the Golden Rule, for example. This ancient rule is still very much considered as the foundation of human rights legislation. No matter what our religious belief is, it makes sense to treat others as you would like yourself to be treated. But the benefits of economic progress have never been equitably distributed; thus, whoever has the gold makes the rules. In other words, those who have more economic and political clout would have greater access to lawmaking and law enforcement. Most of the time, these are the very same people who would instigate the repeal of a law and the enactment of more laws as they see the utility of these laws for their own private benefit.

If the Golden Rule were to be applied as a universal standard for resolving conflicts, granting for argument’s sake that it would be adapted to every culture, then it could more than adequately cover for our insatiable hunger for more laws. Why do we need more laws when human conduct can easily be governed by reciprocity? There is an inherent fairness and justice in the Golden Rule and all that we need is to practise it more often in our daily lives. The ethic of reciprocity demands that we treat other nations the way we expect them to treat us. No country will invade another if it wants peace.

We will not continue to stockpile nuclear arms because we understand their lethal capability, and we don’t want other countries to drop a nuclear bomb in our own backyard. We will not try to cheat the government by understating our income or overstating our deductible credits so we can get a bigger refund, knowing that less revenue for the government means a reduction in services or fewer roads will be repaired or more hospitals will be closed. The CEOs of big corporations will not engage in creative accounting to paint a healthy financial picture of their companies because the impact of their loss is much greater on their employees and the consumers at large.

But centuries of making laws and enacting rules to govern human conduct and to define its limits have never left us the important lesson of learning from our mistakes, of moderating our excesses. We comfort ourselves with our ability to re-enact newer laws whenever the old laws are not working. This is not because the old laws have become obsolete, but rather that lawmaking has become our convenient excuse for our natural inability to correct ourselves. So, if there is a new electronic crime that involves hacking on a bank’s database of preferred customers through text messaging, we urge or lobby our legislative body to enact a statute outlawing sending text messages, say longer than seven letters, for example. Rather than correcting our deficiencies, we try to outlaw and punish any attempt to exploit opportunities around our weaknesses. We have many laws or regulations of this type in the books, many of them arcane, hardly of significant value, and largely unfamiliar to many people or even to our own lawmakers.

Who keeps track of the new laws, anyway? How many really read them when they come out of Parliament or Congress or our local legislative bodies? If nobody knows the laws our country is turning out every time, then how can we be expected to follow them? May be, in this context, ignorance of the law is a perfectly good excuse.

We don’t need any more laws to tell us what we can or cannot do. What we need is a moratorium or, if this is asking too much, may be a cooling off period of 100 years even before considering enacting new legislation.

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