Jim Amrhein examines the absurd overproliferation of laws in this country — there are so many that, essentially, no matter how hard they try, Everyone’s a Criminal.
There Ought (Not) to Be a Law!
“The Constitution of the United States, having delegated to Congress a power to punish treason, counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States, piracies, and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations, and no other crimes whatsoever …” [emphasis added]
— Thomas Jefferson, Kentucky Resolutions , 1798
AFTER MY ESSAY a few weeks ago on illegal immigration and the citizen-patrol Minuteman Project — which ignited passions on many levels, including some I never intended or envisioned (and others that were just plain stupid and point-missing) — I feel it’s time to mend some fences, build some bridges, find some common ground. So today, I’m going to talk about something that’s not quite so inflammatory…
The fact that you’re a criminal . A repeat offender, almost certainly.
Now before you go off thinking that I’ve gone all soap-boxy and righteous on you, or before you jump to the conclusion that this essay’s about the “death of morality” or the demise of the Rule of Law (although these are perfectly good subjects that I’ll no doubt tackle in the future), remember that my Whiskey & Gunpowder beat is personal freedoms. And what limits our personal freedoms? Outside of nature — where the only limit to freedom is might — in democratic societies, our freedoms are limited by only one thing: legislation.
There are simply too many laws to avoid running afoul of some of them.
Everyone’s a Criminal: More Laws Passed Than Can Be Read?
Not to sound Andy Rooney-ish, but have you ever really thought about how many laws govern your existence? Well, I’ve thought about it a lot over the last 15 years, and I’ve even researched it a little over that same period. And you know what I’ve discovered? There are so many laws out there that nobody really knows how many there are.
Seriously, try finding out sometime. Spend a few hours searching Google, and you’ll likely end up with not much more than the occasional humor piece about how it’s illegal to impersonate a duck in some quaint burg in Minnesota (or whatever) and a whole lot of bloggish ranting about all the needless and ineffectual laws governing things like carrying guns and smoking pot. Every once in a great while, someone will speak to the bigger problem, but clearly not often enough to really raise awareness of it. Gathered in bits and pieces from all kinds of sources, here are just a few of the facts I’ve been able to gather about laws that affect you on the federal level:
The federal tax code spans approximately 17,000 pages. There are over 700 individual forms that accompany it
IRS numbers indicate that the 5-plus billion hours (yes, you read that right) it takes John Q. Public to sift through this morass and pay his taxes drains over $190 billion per year from the economy. That’s roughly enough to pay for the entire Iraq war so far. Every year.
The abbreviated “pocket” version of the federal criminal code for individuals is still pushing 1,500 pages in length.
Keep in mind that these are only the federal laws governing you as an individual. The ones ruling over businesses are a whole ‘nother ball of wax. According to one source I read, the feds have imposed over 75,000 pages of additional laws and regulations on anyone trying to run a business! The Office of Management and Budget pegs the cost of complying with all these laws at more than $500 billion a year. And a good many of these laws change every year…
Remember also that this is just the federal side of things. On top of this are all the state and local codes that govern you. I don’t know if it’s the same way in all states, but where I live (Maryland), the books containing the Annotated Code are 38,000 pages long and span what looks like about 9 feet or more of shelf space in my library’s reference section. I once read somewhere that there are at least 250,000 laws governing each one of us, and that the government passes what averages out to be 100 pages a day of new laws for us to follow. That’s more than most folks could even read in one day! Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these factoids (nobody can, apparently), but they seem like the right ballpark to me. They are at least believable figures illustrative of the problem.
And clearly, this morass is not what was intended by Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and company in the Land of the Free.
It’s all well and good to rant and rave about how there are too many laws — I think just about everyone would agree with this assertion, no matter where on the political spectrum he falls. But the thing that really gets me worked up is this simple truth: We’ve passed all these laws (or rather, the boneheads we’ve elected have) without engineering any kind of mechanism whatsoever for keeping people informed of them. So how are we supposed to follow all of this freakin’ legislation if we don’t even know about it?
This is Government 101 — yet our elected officials simply ignore the problem, while our criminal justice system continually drones, “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it.” Of course it is! Who can keep track of a quarter million or more laws, 99% of which are buried in books on shelves we don’t even have access to? Ignorance is the only truly valid excuse out there for breaking the law, if you ask me!
It isn’t happening in our public schools. Today’s union-puppeted teachers there are too busy justifying affirmative action, reinventing U.S. history, propping up outcome-based education, and teaching political correctness to actually educate kids about anything so useful as what’s against the law.
It isn’t being imparted to us by our neighborhood “Officer Friendly,” either. He’s got quotas to meet. That’s why Smokey the Bear waits until he’s writing us a speeding ticket to inform us — also in writing, of course — that our radio antennas are too high, that our license plate covers are too dark, that our tires are too wide for our fenders and that it’s illegal to shine our headlights over a field at night when we make U-turns (don’t laugh — I was once fined 60 bucks for exactly this offense).
And it certainly isn’t something our government goes to any lengths to teach us. I mean, did a truck back into your driveway and deliver a 100,000-page Pocket Guide to the Law on your 18th birthday? I sure didn’t get one.
Everyone’s a Criminal: Is It Legal to Carry a Knife?
What’s really funny (sad, actually) about this mess is the fact that you can’t get a straight answer about the law even from people who are supposed to know it. I once conducted the following experiment – over the course of a few months, I asked a dozen or more police officers this very simple question: Is it legal to carry a knife? I got the following answers, or variations of them:
3. Yes, as long as it’s concealed.
4. Yes, as long as it’s NOT concealed.
5. Not for the purpose of self-defense, only for utility.
6. Yes, as long as the blade isn’t more than 2 inches long.
7. Yes, as long as the blade isn’t more than 3 inches long.
8. Yes, as long as the blade isn’t more than 4 inches long.
9. Yes, as long as it is a folding knife, and not spring-loaded or of a butterfly configuration.
10. Yes, as long as it would not be construed by any police officer as a threat during a routine search (this is entirely subjective, of course).
See what I mean? I asked the same question to four different local retailers of carryable knives and got four different answers there as well. I even asked a criminal lawyer once, and his answer was, of course: “It depends.”
Everyone’s a Criminal: Mired — and Conspired Against
The bottom line is this: There are many more laws than can possibly be enforced by, or even known to, our ever-growing army of cops, judges, lawyers, and lowly citizens. This isn’t an accident of the system run amok — it’s the way the government WANTS it. There are at least two reasons for this:
One, the more laws there are to be broken — and the more obscure, the better — the greater the stream of revenue from fines and violations and the more government jobs there are (cops, health inspectors, banking commissioners, etc.) in enforcing these laws and processing both the violators and the revenues.
Secondly, and even more sinister, is the fact that since there are probably 1,000 times more laws on the books than are known to the citizenry, it all but ensures that everyone’s guilty of something . And in the government’s eyes, it’s good that virtually everyone is a criminal of one type or another. Here’s why: Because if you ever challenge any part of the government — the Housing Department, the Board of Education, the Bureau of Licensing and Regulation, the Election Board, the DNR, the DMV, the BLM, or whatever — it’ll be able to find something, maybe many things, you’re guilty of…
And that, my friends, is its insurance policy against you. If you raise a stink about anything, no matter how legitimate, the full force and power of the government could be channeled into crawling up your wazoo with a microscope to find out everything you’ve ever done wrong and then using those transgressions to either discredit you or to bully you into staying mum about whatever gripe you’ve got or scandal you could expose. It’s nothing but a racket. Blackmail. A seedy bastardization of the “checks and balances” system our nation’s founders envisioned and engineered to protect us from governmental abuses.
Now do you see why things like federal judicial appointments are so vitally important to both parties that they’ll risk drawing the public’s ire by filibustering, wheeling and dealing future legislation, and other stunts? It’s because without biased, activist judges on the bench who will shoehorn their preposterous laws into the increasingly nebulous realm of the “constitutional,” they’re out a lot of money and a lot of power to bully us around.
I know what you’re most likely thinking: “I get it — there are too many laws. But what can we do about it?”
I’m not sure. Simple civil disobedience comes to mind, but that kind of move is a lot more complicated (and less rewarding) now than in Emerson’s age. After all, The Man’s got a lot more power to muck around with you today than in the early 1800s, when the government was basically functioning the way it should.
No, the solution I’d propose comes from a more common-sense place. I got the idea from my girlfriend. When she moved in with me, there just wasn’t enough space for all of her shoes (I’m telling you, this girl could’ve given Imelda Marcos a run for her money). And of course, she loves to buy new shoes, so we made up a rule: For every new pair of shoes she buys, two pairs have to go to Goodwill (or wherever)…
In just a few months, her shoes went from huge, disorganized piles to double-wide rows along the walls to tidy stacks on shoe trees and in hangers on the backs of doors. Of course, at over 130 pairs, she still has too many shoes in my opinion (being a man, I can’t possibly understand, apparently), but at least now, they all fit in the house and are manageable.
So how about this: We pass a new law mandating that for every other new law passed, two others have to get the axe. This will make our elected officials think twice before writing any more legislation – a law will have to be really important to be worth getting rid of two of its brothers…
If this were to happen, in 500 years or so, we might actually know what most of them are.
Always judging, never budging,
Whiskey & Gunpowder
June 15, 2005
P.S. If you don’t hear from me again in the next few weeks, it means the feds read this and I’ve got a microscope up my sphincter. They’ll be trying me for once shooting a bird with a slingshot, peeking in the girl’s locker room at camp, and various and sundry other offenses over a lifetime of vicious unwitting criminality. Send money and lawyers, quickly…
Jim Amrhein is a cocksure, venomous disbeliever in the ability of governments to do much of anything right especially compared with the vast, yet grotesquely shackled power of the American entrepreneur. Degreed in political science, Jim is a widely published columnist on political issues, both under his own byline and as a ghostwriter for one of America’s most outspoken critics of the corrupt farce our elected officials have made of the pure, evolving, and self-correcting system they’ve been entrusted to maintain. From Hulbert's No 1-Ranked Advisory Letter Over 5 Years, GOLD $2000 REPORT: Five entirely new ways to play the gold trend and a hidden way to snap up gold- for less than one penny per ounce!
I agree 100% with your analysis and solution.
Now let’s get the other 99.9% of the population to consider this problem….
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