Saturday, January 01, 2011

Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

....so they say, but it might be if I was on the jury. When that phrase was coined the law was only a tiny fraction of its present volume.

Congress routinely passes new laws, sometimes thousands of pages in length, that they don't bother to read. Then they empower an alphabet soup of bureaucratic agencies to enact regulations that have the force of law. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people are paid to add to or change these laws and regulations on a full-time basis. Lawmakers don't know what the law is anymore. A talk with two different agencies might give you contradictory answers on what the law is on a subject in which they are both supposed to be experts. They can't even track the intended consequences of what they mandate, and are even more clueless about the unintended consequences.

Those of us with any initiative at all to be anything other than worker-drones with no political, business, or other aspirations simply cannot know about, much less comply, with all federal law. I no longer believe that "Ignorance of the law is no excuse". I now believe that the makers and enforcers of the law have an obligation to make the law comprehensible to those to whom it applies before that maxim becomes true.

We are all lawbreakers now, even if we don't know it yet. And how does one dare challenge the system if one knows the system can selectively brand you an outlaw at the first sign of trouble that you cause it? I believe that the ruling class has an obligation to make the laws understandable, just, and reasonable in scope. If they are not willing to do so, then we cannot have a moral obligation to obey laws that not even they fully understand.

Is there a method to this madness? Writer Ayn Rand thought so, and expressed it through the persona of a character in her novel....

"Did you really think we want those laws observed?" said Dr. Ferris. "We want them to be broken. You'd better get it straight that it's not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against... We're after power and we mean it... There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Reardon, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be
much easier to deal with."
('Atlas Shrugged' 1957) {WMail Issue #23}"

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