It’s amazing to me how often we read or hear stories about the number of laws that Americans are required to obey. When you take into account all the federal, state and local laws that are on the books, it adds up to tens of thousands.
The latest example of the sheer volume of laws that the public must observe was the 2011 year-end report in the media that, effective this Jan. 1, some 40,000 new laws were to be added to the sheer volume of laws we are expected to obey.
So, what are we to do?
It’s easy to say, “Obey them,” but who can possibly know them all? Not even the brightest, most well-informed attorney can possibly know every law.
How often do we hear the lament, “There oughta be a law,” about some perceived wrong or societal need? But one of the major problems in America today is that there are too many laws and too much regulation.
One assault on common sense occurred in California (surprise, surprise), where a state legislator proposed a law that would have made it illegal for parents to spank (read discipline) children age 3 or younger. There are many notable examples of legislators who either have no sense or somehow lose it in the exalted halls of government. For instance, Kentucky law mandates that people must bathe once a year.
Not to pick on Kentucky, but like most states, it has a number of crazy laws: Throwing eggs at a public speaker is punishable by up to one year in jail; it is illegal to dye or color a baby chick, duckling or rabbit unless six or more are for sale at the same time; or if a horse dies in front of a residence, the owner (of the horse, that is) must remove the dead animal within 12 hours. If it is not done, then it becomes the homeowner’s responsibility. That may have made sense in the 1800s, but it hardly seems necessary today. One city had an ordinance that required the sheriff to shoot dogs whose owners did not pay a local tax on their animals.
Consider the number of jurisdictions with boards, councils or commissions that legislate and the number of laws they adopt annually. There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States, ranging in size from 41.6 square miles (Arlington, Va.) to 141,398 square miles (North Slope Borough, Alaska), along with almost 19,500 municipalities, in addition to the 50 states. That adds up to some 22,500 entities in addition to the federal government, all putting laws on the books, presumably to correct problems or to influence or regulate behavior — that is, make people do things the legislators want.
In California, the Legislature adds upwards of 5,000 laws to the state’s code books every year. In the inimitable words of Will Rogers, “Congress met. I was afraid they would,” can probably be said to apply to all legislative bodies.
Obviously, a certain amount of this is necessary. For example, local ordinances for such purposes as regulating traffic, land use or taxation. In addition, advances in technology bring new problems and with them the need for new laws. The rapid development of computers and the Internet have brought new opportunities for mischief with them, such as Internet fraud and identity theft. And bio technology is presenting society with moral and ethical challenges that never would have occurred to earlier generations. Who knew?
However, America has more lawyers than the rest of the world combined, and our society is suffering the consequences. Lawyers are hired guns. They will argue any side of any issue, and they write the laws and interpret them.
In addition, peoples’ wants are insatiable. They never seem to be able get enough of whatever it is they think will satisfy them. Sometimes it’s strictly for personal advantage, sometimes for the greater good, or so they seem to believe. Environmental activism or unbridled business practices are good examples. Whatever the reason, legislators respond to special interest groups that want to impose their particular need or desire on the rest of society, and this results in thousands of new laws and regulations to implement them.
“For the people in government, rather than the people who pester it, Washington is an early-rising, hardworking city. It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money,” U.S. journalist P.J. O’Rourke wrote in “Parliament of Whores” in The Winners Go to Washington, D.C.
Furthermore, we can be prosecuted for breaking laws we don’t even know exist. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” has always been a traditional mantra, but it has been reported that Americans are now subject to more than 5 million laws. How can anyone possibly know and obey them all? And they keep piling up. Every legislative body — municipal, county, state and federal — is constantly making new laws, and nothing ever seems to be taken off the books.
So, if ignorance of the law is really no excuse, then we are all charged with specific knowledge of the millions of laws that regulate us. That’s impossible and is undoubtedly one of the reasons why many Americans have grown increasingly cynical about the law and justice in this country.
And, if 5 million laws are not enough, there are also hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of rules that are superimposed on top of them — by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a host of other alphabet soup agencies.
The Internal Revenue Code is a perfect example. The plethora of tax laws and regulations that have been adopted by Congress and the IRS require more than 72,000 pages to codify. No one, not even the most brilliant CPA or tax attorney, knows or understands all these laws and rules. They can’t even agree on what various provisions may mean, yet it is possible to be prosecuted for fraud for violating them.
Legal precedent has also added to the burden of excessive control and regulation that are strangling our society. Hundreds of thousands of court cases are used to interpret the laws and comprise entire libraries of additional rules we are expected to abide by in our daily lives. The sheer weight and complexity of all this breeds contempt for the law, evasion and deliberate lawbreaking.
How much longer can we continue to function under this burden before the system ultimately grinds to a halt? Will it end only when America finally goes the way of the Roman Empire?
There ought to be a law against the sort of fiscal ignorance and irresponsibility we see just about everywhere we look in government today.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.