There Oughtn’t to be a Law

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “there ought to be a law,” you should probably rethink that position.

In the first place, there probably is a law that governs whatever you are up in arms about. As I’ve noted before, there are literally so many federal criminal laws that nobody can even say for sure how many there are. And, because federal agencies have the authority to issue rules and regulations, there may be as many as 3,000 administrative regulations that carry criminal penalties. Then, of course, are the state laws. Traditionally, federal criminal law was limited to very particular sorts of crime inherently related to the federal government (counterfeiting, for example.) As a result, the vast majority of criminal laws were promulgated at the state level. The tremendous “federalization” of criminal law hardly did away with did any of the state laws (with rare exceptions of federal preemption), and so there are far more laws now than ever.

Secondly, and more importantly, even where there is not a statute that directly addresses a particular set of circumstances, existing common law still applies. Common law is court created law (or “court discovered law” if you are a serious believer in the natural law and the power of common law courts to divine the eternal precepts thereof.) Common law is developed over time by the courts relying and building upon past rulings. In the words of Montaigne, “in rolling on [laws] swell and grow greater and greater, as do our rivers.” So, for example, there may not be a statute that requires above-ground pool manufacturers to include warnings against diving, but case law almost certainly creates such a duty. Similarly, there may not be a statute or regulation preventing breakfast cereal manufacturers from putting a certain poison in their foods, but there doesn’t need to be; established negligence and products liability case law provides substantial protections for consumers.

And finally, law is quite often not the proper mechanism to achieve your (no doubt noble) aims. In the words of Jeremy Bentham, “Every act which promises to be pernicious upon the whole to the community (himself included) each individual ought to abstain from of him: but it is not every such act that the legislator ought to compel him to abstain from.” In part, law is not an adequate solution to many problems because it is always enforced by violence or the threat of violence, and that violence has its own costs.

Next time somebody says “there ought to be a law,” ask whether they are certain that there is not some statute, regulation, or common law that does not already cover the subject matter. And, regardless of whether such a law exists, ask whether there is not some better, non-legal remedy for the perceived problem.


Beer of the week: 12th of Never Ale – The idiom “on the 12th of Never” is used to express improbability. And, improbable as it may have seemed years ago, Lagunitas has been started putting their beer into cans. This, the first aluminum encased offering from Lagunitas, is a cloudy, straw-colored pale ale. There is lots of pineapplely hops, and a nicely rounded flavor. An excellent beer, even if it does come from a can.

Reading of the week: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham, Chapter XVII§1, VIII-XV – In this excerpt, Bentham opines that drunkenness and fornication are among the pernicious behaviors that laws are ill-suited to preventing. “With what chance of success, for example, would a legislator go about to extirpate drunkenness and fornication by dint of legal punishment? Not all the tortures which ingenuity could invent would compass it: and, before he had made any progress worth regarding, such a mass of evil would be produced by the punishment, as would exceed, a thousandfold, the utmost possible mischief of the offence.”

Question for the week: If you could repeal any law, what would it be?


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