The Indiana Legislature has once again departed, to the relief of many. Don’t get me wrong; some of my best friends are legislators. Individually, they can be truly charming. But there is a mob mentality that affects them when they are gathered together. They seem to feel that every problem requires a legal remedy…
The Indiana Legislature has once again departed, to the relief of many.
Don’t get me wrong; some of my best friends are legislators. Individually, they can be truly charming. But there is a mob mentality that affects them when they are gathered together. They seem to feel that every problem requires a legal remedy. Economists warn about printing too much money and thus devaluing the currency; lawmakers don’t seem to understand that the same phenomenon applies to government regulatory excess.
During this most recent legislative session, our General Assembly spent considerable time debating a bill that would make it an offense for drivers to spend too much time driving in the left lane. Another new law prohibits individuals from receiving shipments of wine from out of state; only distributors can legally take delivery of that nice vintage you tasted last time you were in Napa Valley.
Indiana is certainly not the only state with too many laws. The national media recently had a field day with the Texas trial of Oprah Winfrey on charges that she violated that state’s so-called "veggie libel" law during a discussion of mad cow disease. Texas lawmakers evidently felt that knocking the state’s agricultural products was a serious enough offense to require passage of a statute forbidding it. So what if the First Amendment says we are all entitled to speak our minds–defame Elsie and we’ll see you in court.
The federal government shares local governments’ desire to control every aspect of our lives. A recent issue of Forbes Magazine listed a number of federal laws directed at behaviors that seem less than epidemic: You can get six months in jail for dressing up in your grandpa’s postal uniform to go trick or treating. Reuse that cancelled postage stamp and they can put you away for a year. You can also get a year for soliciting a political contribution from someone receiving unemployment benefits; for throwing ashes, mud or sand into New York Harbor; or for taking false teeth to someone in another state without a dentist’s permission. You can get five years for eavesdropping on your neighbor’s cordless phone conversation, and thirty years in prison for telling your mortgage company that the money your parents gave you for the downpayment was a gift when it was really a loan.
Lawmakers and those agitating for such measures often justify them as "moral statements." Acknowledging that they can’t be enforced, they defend them as methods of "sending a message" about acceptable behavior. Unfortunately, they have it backwards. When everything is a violation, we lose the ability to make crucial distinctions between important social standards and petty annoyances. When we pass laws that we know can’t be uniformly enforced, we encourage their arbitrary and capricious application.
When even lawyers cannot know all the behaviors that are subject to sanction, law itself loses its moral authority.