Tuesday, May 28, 2013

We're All Criminals Now

There are many men and women who see police officers as heroes, as those who save us from the lawlessness which would engulf a world without government and law enforcement. They never tire of telling us how important the police are, they side with the police in every dispute, give them the benefit of the doubt whenever allegations arise, and even should a crime be proven to have been committed by an officer, they will explain it is a rare exception, that the profession is, for the most part, filled with noble and decent men and women.

But put them in a car, and let them see red and blue lights in their rear view mirror, or a state trooper with a radar gun, and they will roundly curse those same police officers the same as anyone else.

Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but I think it illustrates the point with which I want to open. That is, for most of us, police are good and decent men. And many of us will even allow that other government functionaries are worthy individuals pursuing thankless tasks. However, once the context changes and we are uncertain of our legal position, or worse, know we are going to be seen as in the wrong, and we suddenly see those noble functionaries as hated rivals1.

The depressing part of this revelation is that it does not have to be. We could easily exist in a nation where, unless we intentionally broke the law, we would never find ourselves in this circumstance, but it is not to be. Why? The reason we find ourselves in such circumstances are threefold, and both are due to problems with our contemporary government.

First, we find ourselves in confrontation with authority figures because laws are passed which are consistently broken by a majority, or at least a considerable minority. Speed limits come to mind as the best example of legal fictions. A vast majority of us regularly violate the speed limits, including those who passed the laws. While they are justified with platitudes about safety and fuel economy and what not, we all demonstrate we either do not believe such statements, or don't care. In either case, we are passing laws in which we do not believe, and thus end up in constant conflict with authority.

Second, there are laws which, as written, or as enforced, are simply impossible to understand, or at best are subject to completely arbitrary interpretation, leaving us uncertain whether or not what we are doing is legal. As we worry that at any moment what was once acceptable will now result in a penalty, we find ourselves fearing and hating those charged with enforcing these unintelligible laws.

Finally, there are laws which are simply impossible to obey, or which, at best, impose massive real world penalties upon those who obey them. For example, a well known liability case involved a pesticide company sued for failing to put specific warnings on a label, despite the fact that government regulations said the label could only contain specific pieces of text, not including such warnings. These sort of laws leave individuals forced to choose between obeying the law and facing financial ruin or other dire penalties. As a result, those who enforce such laws become seen as enemies quite quickly.

Some may say that this is inevitable, we will always have such situations, and we just have to accept it. But I would argue this is not true. Perhaps taxmen will always be unwelcome, but even there I think a more clear tax code would do wonders. Int he other cases, there is every reason to believe this sort of enmity need not exist. For example, historically, police have not been seen as foes by those outside the criminal classes, at least in states which did not try to use police for purposes other than protection of rights. And similarly, I imagine were we to limit laws to preventing force, theft and fraud, and punishing those crimes when they occur, people would not see police or government in the negative light many now do. It is simply because intrusive, arbitrary government turns so many of us into law breakers, or potential law breakers, that we have such a negative impression of police and the state.

Of course, there is another argument for adopting such a simplified set of laws as well. The flip side of this problem, the hostility we feel toward the state, is the way our law breaking affects the state's view of us. Just talk to an IRS employee for a time and see what he thinks of tax payers. Thanks to the environment of the IRS, and the fact that they tend also to see taxpayers in such confrontational circumstances, the IRS tends to see taxpayers not as those who are confused and make mistakes, but to a man as intentional tax cheats. Similarly, it is not uncommon for police officers to come to see the average man as a law breaker.

Of course, no reform will completely eliminate this, as the contexts in which these professions operate will always color their views. But, if we has less casual law breaking, or fewer circumstances in which confusion or unclear laws made unintentional violations possible, it is likely those charged with enforcing laws would see a lot fewer of us and might come to develop a less jaded attitude.

And such attitudes do cause problems. When faced with creating laws and regulations, if a law maker sees individuals as intentional law breakers, he is likely to take much different actions than if he thinks violations are due to confusion or imprecise wording. In short, it is much easier to justify taking stronger action against those who intentionally break the law than those who do not, or those whose violations are due to flaws in the law.

And there is one final consideration. If the majority of us are criminals, or potential criminals, due to some technical violation or other, then we also are all potentially subject to arrest. It is unlikely we will ever be picked up for such petty violations as most of us commit, but just as the police use petty infractions to bully informers into providing information, or lawyers bargain away charges to get confessions to other crimes, it is possible that some government agent who wants us to do something, anything, might use that little violation as a level to get us to do it. And, given the attitude mentioned above, it is likely he won't even feel any guilt. After all, we are just another criminal.

But the problem is, as the title states, we are all criminals, or at least a lot of us are. Be it a health code violation, code violations in our homes, home improvements without a permit, failure to report interest on our taxes, the failure to license our cat, or something else, it is likely that we have all violated some law or another, some regulation, something. And in the end, that is an undesirable circumstance. A free government, of free men and women, should concern itself with significant matters, not trivialities. If you find that the majority of your people have broken the law, then something is wrong with the laws, not the people. Perhaps such trivial violations will have no effect, will never make a difference in your life, or in the actions of the state, but once we accept that we are always going to be breaking some law, don't we lose a little respect for all laws? And worse, doesn't the state come to see us, as well, as habitual criminals, unable to obey laws? And that is a situation which will bring nothing good.


1. This is likely why the IRS is the one group about which very few have anything good to say. Almost all interactions with the IRS are confrontational. As we complete taxes without their aid, we almost never see IRS staff except for audits and other inquiries likely to cost us money. In addition, because of the uncertainty we all feel about tax laws, even less confrontational encounters are fraught with danger, as we are never really sure we did not violate some rule.


  1. You got me. I have an unregistered cat. I speed a little bit now and then too.

    On one extreme our lives are completely micromanaged by law after law; on the other extreme there is the complete absence of law – and complete chaos, survival of the strongest. Somewhere in between is the right amount of laws, but who’s to say exactly where that is. One car driving on the highway at 100 mph is probably not going to be a problem, at least not for anyone else. But when you get a million cars driving at 100 mph, suddenly you realize the necessity of traffic laws.

    I don’t really have a problem with most local laws. I don’t like them all but I accept it as the price of living in society. Nobody really likes the fact that they have to abide by laws, but they like the fact that others have to.

    It’s federal over reach that really gets to me. We were supposed to be a nation with limited federal power. And whereas state laws are reasonably clear about the behaviors they are trying to curb (speeding, drinking, loud noise-making, etc.), federal laws are often social engineering masquerading as necessary law. The IRS is the perfect example. There’s no reason paying something to the federal gov’t should be complicated, except that some have decided this is the perfect vehicle for managing people’s behaviors.

    1. Speed limits are actually a combination of two issues. The first relates to public ownership of property -- and I know I hold an unpopular and extreme position on this, so I won't discuss how making what should be private public turns normal rules that an owner would impose into laws, creating new issues.

      The second part, though, is that, quite simply, we do not base speed limits on sensible measures, such as safe speeds on highways (which are generally designed for 75 mph or more) but rather on what the politicians would like to be true. people SHOULD want to drive slowly, we should rive to save fuel and so on. So instead of laws based upon the actual roads, or the behavior of drivers, we get laws based on what they imagine is ideal, and thus the laws are rarely followed.

      As far as regulations, local or federal are concerned, I believe the primary problem is that they tend to have very little sane basis. For example, building codes. Who in their right mind would build a house that would fall down? Or which would produce injuries likely to bankrupt them with lawsuits? As I argued with worker safety laws and others, forcing people to be careful is a bad call, as either it is based on excessive caution, forcing people to be absurdly cautious, or else it is simply a set of arcane rules (building codes have a hefty dose of these, alongside sensible -- but largely pointless-- rules. Same with many health code rules.)

      Most of the time, these arcane rules arose from some particular problem that grabbed attention at some time, and left a legacy of rules which have little rationale at present. Of course, they are tailor made for bribery and other corruption, and the need to know arcane and senseless rules make sit hard get licensed in some professions, limiting competition and raising prices, but I doubt any of them make us safer.

      Wow, I have far too little space for this topic. I suppose I will have to come back and discuss this one again, specifically the safety regulations of the world, and the harm they do, as many seem to have a relatively positive view of them. (I will discuss to what degree they are beneficial, to be fair.)

      Then again, in training this week for work, so probably won't get back to writing until later Friday, but then I will come back to this subject.