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Harris Sherline: There Ought To Be a Law

Actually, there probably already is — and the excessive control and regulation are strangling us.

How many laws do we pass to fix problems, only to find out that they don’t fix anything and often make things worse? Sometimes laws are passed for political purposes, sometimes to bestow some benefit on a particular group or individual, sometimes simply out of ignorance. Whatever the case, the more they pile up, the worse things get.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline
Logic and reason often have no effect on those who support many of the actions that are taken by our political leaders, who may have other reasons, albeit often wrong or simply self-serving. But, a bigger problem is the lack of knowledge of the electorate, many of whom are uninformed or tuned out.

Does anyone ever stop to consider the number of laws that are passed?

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 alone, the Legislature adopts upward of 5,000 laws every year.

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, such as Internet fraud and identity theft. And biotechnology is presenting society with moral and ethical challenges that never would have occurred to earlier generations. Who knew?

People 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 may 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, which results in thousands of new laws and regulations.

“For the people in government, rather than the people who pester it, Washington is an early rising, hard-working city,” quipped political satirist P.J. O’Rourke. “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.”

Furthermore, you and I can be prosecuted for breaking laws we don’t even know exist. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” has 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 OSHA, EPA, IRS, HUD, EEOC 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 and interpreted by the courts requires more than 66,000 pages to codify and interpret. 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 is also adding 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? Chances are, it will end only when America finally collapses under the weight of excessive regulation. It may take many more years, but if we don’t come to grips with the problem, it will eventually happen. I’m just glad I’m old enough that I will probably not be around when it does.

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.

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