Tuesday, October 09, 2007

How Many Laws Do We Need?

It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood...”

--Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (Federalist No. 62, 1788)
I've read Amherst's Town Bylaws. I haven't read all the Zoning Bylaws; that would qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

It would take me a very long time to read the State Laws.

And there is absolutely, positively no way anybody with a social life and a full-time job could read all of the Federal Laws.

Does it have to be this way? Maybe we need insanely complex laws and regulations, because our modern society is so complex. Does it bother you that your neighbor owns seven cats? Pass a law! People not paying attention to traffic as they walk across the street listeing to their iPods? Pass a law! Worried about genetically modified crops? Pass a law!

Robin Hanson has a great blog post on the "regulation ratchet." It's a flaw in our system of government; I wish the Founding Fathers had included a stronger check on the number of Federal laws and regulations. If I were King, I'd tell the lawmakers that they had to come up with a set of laws that were small enough to fit into an 11'th grade textbook, and simple enough that they could be taught in a semester-long class to all High School students.

Then, if they wanted to pass a new law they'd have to repeal an old law to make room.

That's way too radical an idea, though-- expecting everybody to actually know the Law. How does that saying go-- Ignorance of the Law is a Good Excuse?

For a much less radical idea, check out the Read the Bills Act. It's a common-sense proposal-- that our lawmakers read the laws before they vote for them.


Jonathan O'Keeffe said...

Gavin -

I agree with your basic desire for simplicity in government; however, I'm not sure how practical this is, particularly when taken to extremes.

As a local example, take the "cruel and unusual" zoning bylaw. The basic "do what you want, as long as you don't bother your neighbor" approach seems attractive at first glance. But when writ large, and applied to anything more complex than a dispute between abutting property owners, it means that the town as a whole abdicates responsibility for its long-term development. The current multi-year Master Plan process tells us that people have lots of opinions and desires for how the town should develop. But if we apply a free-for-all, minimalist zoning policy, this gives the town no ability to control its development, leading to an outcome that is undesirable to the town as a whole. Sure, this approach maximizes individual liberty, but at the expense of the public good (e.g. the tragedy of the commons).

Is there room to simplify existing laws and regulations? Sure - this is particularly obvious at the state and federal levels, but it applies locally also. But I don't think that the existence of complexity in the legislative code is sufficient justification for sweeping the whole thing aside and arbitrarily limiting the complexity (or worse, simply the number) of laws that could be passed. (Although the irony of having a law that limits the number of laws you could pass would be somewhat amusing).

- Jonathan

Gavin Andresen said...

It seems to me the mistake made over and over again is "regulation at a distance."

For example, our zoning laws REQUIRE that developers create a certain minimum number of parking spaces, based on what they're developing.


I suppose because people are concerned that the next door neighbors will park their third car on the street in front of their house all night, all year long.

But if you're concerned about that, wouldn't it be better to just regulate overnight on-street parking? (... which we already do, during winter months so the snowplows can do their job...)

I think most of our zoning regulations could be distilled down into one simple law:

"If you do something to your property that decreases the value of your neighbor's property, then you must compensate them for their loss."

Combined with some changes to our legal system so the loser of a civil lawsuit has to pay the winner's legal fees, and it seems to me that's a fair, flexible system that would work better than the rat's nest of regulations we have now.

Jonathan O'Keeffe said...

The problem with this approach is that inconvenience to your neighbors is not necessarily a fungible asset - it's not readily apparent what its cash value would be, and finding a mutually acceptable payoff would tie the town up in knots.

If my next-door neighbor decides to build an aluminum smelter, I'm unlikely to be satisfied with simply being "compensated for my loss". Of course, everything has its price - if you paid me enough money, I'd eventually be satisfied and move away. But I'm not likely to be too satisfied with that transaction, and it's unlikely that the town as a whole is going to be too thrilled about creating an environment where deep pockets are able to buy out the neighbors and develop whatever they want.

The bulk of the current regulations are concerned with trying to prevent negative outcomes, rather than, as you suggest, simply accepting the negative outcomes and compensating aggrieved parties accordingly.

Gavin Andresen said...

What if your neighbor had a really ultra-high-tech aluminum smelter in their house that:
+ Didn't make any noise
+ Didn't smell
+ Didn't pollute
+ Didn't look ugly
+ Didn't require massive deliveries of raw bauxite all day and all night?

Aluminum smelting operations may be big, smelly messy operations today, but technology is a wonderful thing; I wouldn't be surprised if clean, safe, quiet nanotechnology-based aluminum smelting was possible in 50 years.

I'm OK with zoning part of the town "residential," and imposing rules on the amount of noise, traffic, etc. that you're allowed to generate. Problems occur when, instead of regulating consequences, you try to regulate causes.

There aren't all that many consequences to regulate:
+ Traffic
+ Noise
+ Pollution
+ Smell
... and the somewhat intangible "neighborhood feel", which I think is pretty well captured in property values.

Baer Tierkel said...

Interesting article on slate about laws that are unenforced:


Gavin Andresen said...

My favorite unenforced state law (still on the books in Massachusetts-- Jesus fucking Christ, whatever happened to separation of Church and state):

Chapter 272: Section 36. Blasphemy

Section 36. Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

Baer Tierkel said...

Dude - you are so going to hell.

Mary E.Carey said...

Contumeliously is a word you don't hear a lot any more. I wonder what would happen if a person bound to good behavior acted badly.