Law

Esquire Writer Discovers that Too Many Laws Breed Disdain for the Law, Wants the Supreme Court to Uphold More Laws

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If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law. No … Wait … That's not what I meant.

Leave it to Esquire and its writers to take a perfectly good premise about how an overabundance of intrusive laws leads to disrespect for the law and turn it into the latest whine about how mean people have conspired to keep lefties from running things. Forget that the U.S. center-left was touting its political dominance and the impending demise of the opposition just four years ago — now Stephen Marche takes his generally well-considered "A Nation of Scofflaws: The end of law in America" and book-ends it with coherence-threatening paragraphs calling Supreme Court justices "buffoons" because they might (haven't yet) declare his employers' (he's Canadian) beloved Obamacare unconstitutional.

Fortunately, if you peel away the seemingly pasted on opening and closing verbiage, there's insightful, if not new, material to be found about how overregulation leads to growing disdain and disobedience for the rules:

According to one estimate, the average American commits three felonies a day. Most of these occur online, where we have created a parallel universe that everyone has agreed to treat as a cesspool of permitted illegality. One of the most astonishing contradictions of the recent SOPA/PIPA debates was how rabidly otherwise liberal, even socialistic people — citizens who would consider it obvious that the state should have a place in regulating every other kind of business — wanted the government out of the Internet. Everybody is a libertarian online. …

But fear of a regulated Internet is only a symptom of a far more general distrust in the law and its makers. The drug war — over forty years of failure — has made us all comfortable being criminals. The word scofflaw was invented during Prohibition, when a Massachusetts man held a contest looking for a word that described upstanding citizens who simply ignored laws they disapproved of. Prohibition may have coined the term, but the drug war has made it a near-universal condition. Only twenty years ago, Clinton had to pretend he never inhaled. Today, Obama openly admits to vacuuming cocaine, as do workmates and brothers and neighbors.

The law has always been an ass, but the current crop of laws on a whole range of issues — from what we're allowed to put in our bodies to fair tax rates to who enters the country and how — is so patently ridiculous, so adrift in an ideological purity that has nothing to do with how ordinary people live their lives, that the country has more or less accepted that ignoring them is okay…

Why, yes, Mr Marche! You're right! At least from the time Tacitus scraped some version of "The more corrupt the state, the more laws," into his wax tablet to more recent years, when Winston Churchill quipped a gin-scented, "If you have ten thousand regulations, you destroy all respect for the law," people with a brain cell or two to rub together have recognized that human beings largely stop obeying the law of you hit them with an avalanche of red tape. That many of those same people have then gone on to generate bureaucratic avalanches has merely provided more evidence for the point. That evidence has come in areas like shadow economic activity, as people flee from high taxes and burdensome regulations, and gun control, because people seem not to trust governments that don't trust them.

Marche is also right to point out that Americans are conflicted about their scofflawry: "[t]he most profound irony of all is that within this permissive attitude toward lawbreaking runs a ferocious insistence on order — the United States has one quarter of the world's inmates for 5 percent of the world's population."

That's an oddity that may reflect the deep divisions in American political life between supporters of intrusive laws and those unwilling to be bound by those laws. It may also refect the long-time libertarian vs. puritan/communitarian philosophical split that has long made American life a tad confusing as we eagerly vilify and ban stuff that we also celebrate and popularize. Yeah, we're an oddly authoritarian and yet so rebellious bunch.

And so we look back at those book-ending paragraphs that have Marche warning us, "[w]ith the decision on health care scheduled for June, the country's already tenuous regard for the Court may grow even more strained."

U.S. News and World Report took a look at Obamacare last year and reported:

Section 3022 of the law, which is about the Medicare shared savings program, take up just six pages in the 907-page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But HHS has turned that into 429 pages of new regulations…

Ten thousand regulations, indeed, Mr. Marche! And if the court upholds Obamacare, don't you worry just a bit that, after a few years of those new rules, we will have, once again, "more or less accepted that ignoring them is okay"?