All those Damn Laws! Over 18 Million Laws in the U.S… and climbing!
How many laws are affecting you as you’re reading this today?
If you think you know the answer, I will tell you you’re lying, and there is a law against lying about how many laws there are.
I really don’t know that there is, but then again, you really don’t know that there isn’t. So we could both be in trouble.
However, I do know that ignorance of the law is no defense. This is something I’ve heard many times in the past, but I have no clue as to whether it’s really law or just something judges use to belittle people into feeling guilty.
Thinking through the title for this column, I have to admit that I have no idea how many laws truly exist in the U.S. But then again, neither does anyone else.
They’re simply not countable. There is no central place for our laws, no common form, style, or accessibility requirements; only some level of hope that once enacted, people will pay attention to them.
Here’s why this is such a confusing issue.
The total number of governmental bodies in the U.S. is approaching a staggering number – 90,000. Every city, county, state, and special taxing district has its own governing body with its own elected officials.
Taking on many of the characteristics of living, breathing organisms, these governmental organizations are constantly fighting for influence, control, and survival.
Each one of these governmental entities has an ability to create and enforce its own laws, rules, and regulations. Working with a limited set of tools in their toolbox, governments have resorted to using laws and regulations to solve virtually every conceivable problem. The sheer volume of laws emerging from these 90,000 rule-making bodies is truly stunning.
It may indeed total 18 million.
With a society that is already heavily invested in our current systems, and people already pre-programmed to think and act accordingly, what we need is a system for changing the system.
Here’s what I would propose.
Society’s Operating System
Much like a computer operating system, our body of laws serves as the code for all citizens to abide by.
From a computer nerd perspective, writing a computer program that uses 18 million lines of code to accomplish the same thing as one with 1,800 lines would be considered a massively bloated program.
That’s exactly what’s happening with our laws. As an operating system, they demand far too much human energy and intellectual bandwidth to keep each of these fiefdoms running.
Making matters worse is the lack of any central repository for our laws. Some only exist on scraps of paper stored in filing cabinets in courthouses, while others have been meticulously stored in books and other digital medium.
Using another computer analogy, the lack of a central repository is like trying to operate a computer without a central cache for its memory.
This leaves us with a very dysfunctional operating system, and the only way to change an operating system is to rewrite the source code.
Proposing a Solution
We currently have no check-and-balance for impeding the excessive law-writing now taking place.
For this reason I would propose a four-step system for correcting the system. These are what I refer to as the “four laws for managing the laws:”
1.) Public Access Requirement: Make it a requirement that all laws be posted in one central online location – one central website for all laws. Any laws not posted on this website will be deemed unenforceable.
2.) Sunset Provision: Any laws that have not been applied or enforced in that past 20 years become unenforceable and must be removed from the list. Time spent getting rid of the clutter means less time for creating new laws.
3.) Simplification Mandate: All laws must be written on an 8th grade comprehension level. No laws can go into effect until they are certified as having been written on this level.
4.) Code of Government Ethics: No governmental entity will be allowed to directly profit from the enforcement of its own laws. The control of wealth is just as insidious as taking ownership of it. Whenever there’s a direct profit motive linked to law enforcement, the nature of government changes, and our humanity becomes compromised.
If I could add a fifth requirement, it would be that all new laws be game tested prior to implementation.
For many, the process of modeling and game testing our systems is a cause with epic meaning, something that many would want to participate in
Game designers would love the challenge. Game players will enjoy being part of something far bigger than themselves. Even politicians would love it because it gives them a logical path for answers.
However, taking these steps is only part of the answer.
Reigning in the Unreignable
Technology ends up being the great enabler of complexity. Is it possible for technology to take our existing super complex set of laws and turn them into something manageable, even reasonable?
If all of the laws are in a central place, we can develop artificially intelligent systems that can read, understand, and know how to apply them. Smartphones and other AI devices can let us know when we’re in a gray area or about to violate a law.
Applying machine learning to our courts and justice systems will finally make the phrase, “ignorance of the law is no defense,” a viable concept.
We won’t need to personally know the laws, our devices will do that for us. They will serve as our guide, our coach, and in some respects, even our conscience.
Is it reasonable to assume that morality can be automated, that our societal norms and human faux pas can be reined in?
Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”
Does that mean, by extension, that automating a system for managing and enforcing all our laws will make us dysfunctional? Or will it simply make us more efficient?
Does the notion of having a machine that can tell us the difference between right and wrong scare you?
The rogue philosopher in me says this is the worse idea ever. But at the same time, the entrepreneur in me thinks there may be a golden opportunity for turning it into something great.
That said, I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Could this give rise to a better grade of humanity, or the worst idea you’ve ever heard? I would love to hear your thoughts.