On Laws

From the Justinian code to modern tax code westerners have been keen on laws for quite a while. While usually well intentioned laws have had mixed results in practice, and as technology advances our laws will need to as well, some thoughts on the matter below.

Currently in the US (and other major nations) it’s impossible to know all the laws that apply to a person. The major ones we all know well enough, there are state (and sometimes federal) laws that prohibit traditional crimes ( theft, violence) but there are also local laws that can cover a wide array of behaviors, state and federal regulations that cover things from the kinds of grass one can grow to how deep a hole one can dig. Many of our laws hinge on a very select group of people knowing them (EX: corp. tax law) and an even more select groups enforcing them (EX: IRS). The result is laws tend to be very easy to break, and only the poor or exceptionally unlucky are really punished.

For example, recently (last 30 years) the US has made changes to its laws prohibiting driving while impaired, these have been generally to increase penalties and reduce thresholds for what “impaired” means, but by and large the people who see jail time for such offenses are the poor ( Google “Ethan Couch”). Systematic inequality aside, our laws are not doing a very good job of ensuring we treat each other in a productive/beneficial manner (which I argue they should).

I recommend a VAST simplification of all our laws; from the US and state constitutions to local regulations, as a general rule if the law takes more than a few sentences to explain it’s too specific and should be rolled into a more general law EX: We have laws prohibiting fraud, identity theft, cheating ext.. What if we nixed the lot and prohibited dishonesty? No legalese to narrow down the people who can interpret the law, no exclusions for the rich and powerful, simple- being dis-honest is prohibited. Now that would open the door to a LOT of cases, millions or more, a 5 year would want his sister brought charged for lying about taking candy ect.  While some may lament the cost to the public, I see this as proof that we have been short staffing our legal system for far too long. Such a case as the one described above would come to one of many local magistrates, who would likely rule in favor of the 5 year old and defer punishment to the parents, more over it would give the entire family exposure to the legal system in a positive way (positive interactions with government are should be the standard). Cases with larger impacts (think class action) would need to be addressed by higher courts and there needs to be a simple system for redress.

Getting out of criminal law and into regulation, specific standards are often used, but the law need not include them. A few years back GE killed some people by using a cheaper switch in their autos, with our current laws not much happened as a result, the CEO at the time is free and super wealthy, no one went to jail, GE is still making autos… It’s impossible to make a regulation for everything humans may do that we know is harmful, a better approach would be ensuring that profit motive is never so great that it would overwhelm an individual’s desire to obey the law.

Legal reform is a tricky pickle, like a lot of facets of government improvement is like working on a car while it’s driving. We cannot pause the world to work on a better model, we need to carefully chart out how to get to that better model while the prior one is still in effect. In essence we should look to democratize our legal system, currently there are far too few people that make legal decisions. This is made possible by creating artificial barriers to the legal system (Legalese, various bars, cost) if our legal system was made stupid simple it could be leveraged to effetely deal with a lot of social issues. In effect we all become our own “lawyers”. Will there be abuse? Likely, but will it be greater than what we have seen in the past? No, by increasing access, reducing barriers and maintaining transparency people will find themselves better served and the legal system will be less a stick the rich uses to beat each other and the poor and more a ruler used to measure the suffering we cause each other and offer remedies when called for.

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