Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

A Torrent of Laws | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on October 25, 2019

Henry Hazlitt

All over the United States, if you are reading this in a daylight hour, there is a ceaseless downpour of new laws. Every day some of us, somewhere, are being encumbered or shackled by still more restrictions. There are just too many laws.

But how do we tell how many laws are too many, and which ones are pernicious?

Let us begin with some elementary considerations. A law may be defined as an edict which either forbids you to do something or compels you to do something. Sometimes, it is true, it may be merely a guiding rule which tells you how to do something, or defines procedures or standards, like weights and measures. But such standard-setting laws are few in number. Most laws are prohibitions or compulsions—in short, commands.

Why are laws necessary? They are necessary, first of all, to prevent people from injuring or aggressing against their neighbors; to prevent theft and fraud, vandalism and violence. On the more positive side, they are necessary to lay down rules of action, so that others may know what to expect of us and we of others, so that we may anticipate each other’s actions, keep out of each other’s way, and work and act so far as possible in cooperation and harmony.

In a modern society, the traffic laws epitomize law in general. When they instruct us to keep on the right side, to drive within a specified speed limit on a given street or highway, to stop at a red light, to signal our intended turns, they may seem to an impatient driver to be restricting his liberty, to be preventing him from getting to his destination in minimum time. But because these restrictions apply to everyone else, they are, if they are well conceived, helping not only him but all of us to get to our multitudinous destinations in the minimum time in which this can be done smoothly and safely.

How many traffic laws do we need? That is a difficult question to answer numerically. A general traffic code need consist only of a few simple rules, but they could all, it would seem, easily be embodied in a single statute. In any case, if the government confined itself to enacting a code of laws simply intended to prevent mutual aggression and to maintain peace and order, it is hard to see how such a code would run into any great number of laws.

England in 1854

Now let us look at the situation we actually face. In order to get an adequate picture, let us begin by comparing it with the situation as it existed more than a century ago in, for example, England. Let us take the year 1854, when the British philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote an essay on “Overlegislation.” Some of us are apt to assume that the mid-nineteenth century in England was perhaps the time and place when a great nation came nearest to a laissez-faire regime. Spencer did not find it so. He found the country buried under needless legislation, and piling up more. With the change of a few details, his essay sounds as if it were written yesterday:

Take up a daily newspaper and you will probably find a leader exposing the corruption, negligence, or mismanagement of some State department. Cast your eye down the next column, and it is not unlikely that you will read proposals for an extension of State supervision. …Thus, while every day chronicles a failure, there every day reappears the belief that it needs but an Act of Parliament and a staff of officers, to effect any end desired.

Spencer went on to refer to mid-nineteenth-century England’s “20,000 statutes, which it assumes all Englishmen to know, and which not one Englishman does know.” He found officialdom systematically slow, stupid, extravagant, unadaptive, and corrupt; and yet given more and more duties to fulfill. Instead of being confined to its primary duty of protecting each individual against others, the State is asked in a hundred ways to protect each individual against himself—“against his own stupidity, his own idleness, his own improvidence, rashness, or other defect.”

“It is in the very nature of things,” he continued, “that an agency employed for two purposes must fulfill both imperfectly.”

… And if an institution undertakes, not two functions, but a score—if a government, whose office it is to defend citizens against aggressors, foreign and domestic, engages also to disseminate Christianity, to administer charity, to teach children their lessons, to adjust prices of food, to inspect coal mines, to regulate railways, to superintend housebuilding, to arrange cab-fares, to look into people’s stink-traps, to vaccinate their children, to send out emigrants, to prescribe hours of labor, to examine lodging-houses, to test the knowledge of mercantile captains, to provide public libraries, to read and authorize dramas, to inspect passenger-ships, to see that small dwellings are supplied with water, to regulate endless things from a banker’s issues down to the boat fares on the Serpentine—is it not manifest that its primary duty must be ill discharged in proportion to the multiplicity of affairs it busies itself with?

Let us now pass over a century and a quarter, and see how our situation today compares with England’s then.

It is the individual states that enact the laws that affect their citizens most often and most intimately in their daily living. A figure averaging the number of laws passed each year in each of the 50 states would be hard to compile on a continuing basis and perhaps mean less than particular examples. Let us take our two most populous states, New York and California. During 1975, 1976, and 1977, the New York state legislature passed, respectively, 870, 966, and 982 public laws. (“Private laws” are not included here, as these individually affect only a handful of people.) During these same three years the California state legislature passed 1280, 1487, and 1261 public laws.

Prohibitions or Rule-Changes

Now let us look at the implications of this. What does a new law do? It either puts a new prohibition or a new compulsion on each of us (or a large number of us), or it changes the rules under which we have hitherto been acting. So on the basis of these figures the citizens of individual states are being subjected to an average of about a thousand new prohibitions or rule-changes every year. No one is excused from not knowing what every one of these new laws commands. I leave it to the reader to picture what all this means in terms of human liberty.

But we have not even got to Federal laws. Supposedly, these are only needed to cover such matters as interstate commerce and are subject to severe limitations by the Constitution, so an innocent reader of that document might not see the need for many such laws. Though the Federal books were presumably blank when it started, the First Congress, which began on March 1789, did not see the need for many Federal laws. It enacted only 94.

But then, as more and more laws were piled up, succeeding Congresses were convinced that more and more additional laws were necessary. The 85th Congress, which opened in January 1957, enacted 1,009 laws; the 94th, which began in January 1975, enacted 588. The ten Congresses during that period enacted an average of 735 laws each, which means an average of 367 new Federal laws a year—or one new law every day. The reader should be reminded that individually many of these laws ran to well over 100 pages each.

Congressional Promises

The mania for piling up additional laws—new compulsions or prohibitions or changes of the rules—seems to be endemic in our democratic process…

More here

Be seeing you

Henry Hazlitt Quotes. QuotesGram



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