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: MORE
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