Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Beyond the Laws (A Nation of Laws, pt. V)

There is another side to imposing the least possible burdens on citizens:  namely, the citizens themselves have to behave in the most reasonable possible manner.  That's vague, so let me pose it in the form of a mathematical thesis:  any sufficiently unreasonable citizenry requires a despotic government.

In other words, the more willing people are to violate the law, the more despotic the government must be.

There can be no legal remedy for a people that will not obey laws in general.  You can tighten the laws and increase the punishments, but that is precisely what you are trying to avoid.  If people will not obey some laws, those laws could be adjusted; but if people will not obey laws in general, there is no solution beyond changing the culture of the society.

People are inclined to obey laws that they think are just (see "Why People Obey Law," which I have not read but it looks interesting).  But it is not sufficient if people only obey laws that they agree with, because there is no hope of getting everyone to agree on the justice of every law.  Neither is it a solution to pass only a very few laws that are very just and therefore enjoy wide support.  Sometimes people view the absence of a law as an injustice; consider government-endorsed same-sex marriage, which half the population thinks is wrong, but the other half thinks is wrong to be without.

People, therefore, need to obey laws that they think are unjust.  Obviously, there is a limit to the amount of injustice that a person can, and should, submit to.  You may well believe that traffic cameras are an unlawful intrusion, but they hardly rise on their own to the level of tyranny.  Other laws violate justice and human decency so fundamentally that they should be ignored, subject to civil disobedience, or even (in rare cases) openly thwarted.  When I speak of obeying unjust laws, I mean those -- presumably the vast majority -- that a person considers wrong without being an affront to his humanity.

Why would you obey laws that you think are unjust?  It isn't difficult to imagine that you think the system of creating laws is fundamentally just, and that you wish to maintain this system, even if it means tolerating laws that you personally disagree with.  The world is imperfect, and the alternative to obeying some unjust laws may be subjection to vastly more unjust laws under a tyranny.  Everyone in principle should agree that the governmental structure is morally sound, so that he may tolerate minor injustices in exchange for the chance to correct them through normal political processes.

One also needs to believe that other people in society are capable of governing in a basically fair manner.  No party or political faction governs forever; eventually, one has to accept the fact that one's opponents are going to be in charge of making, executing, and interpreting laws, perhaps all at the same time.  Laws are just words on paper, and even just laws may be undermined by partial and unfair administration.  If you think that your opponents are fundamentally out for their own interests and will seek to use power to extend control and extract money rather than administer justice impartially, you have little incentive to obey the law and act within the system.  At some point, a common political system becomes virtually impossible to maintain.

For this reason, people in public life are morally responsible to behave impartially and to emphasize that the government exists in the interests of all people.  "Morally responsible" in this sense is deliberately vague because it acts on a sliding scale.  There can be no rule against lawmakers who advocate interpreting laws to partisan advantage or who claim that government is illegitimate because it benefits some people rather than others; among other problems, who would interpret such a rule?  It is a more a principle of good government, that politics will be more civil and government less burdensome to the extent that politicians emphasize the collective nature of government.  Of course, it is also a principle of a democratic citizenship that it will elect leaders who fit this paradigm more than those who pose government as a zero-sum, conflictual game.

Just to restate, I am not saying that no politician should ever challenge the justice of the governmental system he serves.  The principle is relative:  politicians should not challenge the justice of the governmental system to the extent that it remains sound, and in any case should always remain aware that society will function better if people think of the governmental system as fair than if they think of it as conflictual and competitive.  The penalty for not following this principle is nothing at all, except in the long run that society will have less and less confidence in the government and the government will become more and more despotic, the administration more and more partisan as a result.

I have a strongly libertarian bent; I believe that, in general, the fewer the governmental burden on the individual, the better off society is.  But I cannot escape the general principle that government is a collective enterprise.  In the West, it has traditionally been thought of as a res publica, a public good, or a "commonwealth."  People living together share a common interest in making things better, and although I think that this generally means interfering with each other as little as possible through coercive means, in the final analysis we establish government as a collective effort.  (See the excellent "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty" for a discussion of how people respond to failed organizations, including governments.)  In business, the customer is king and can spend his money elsewhere if he is not happy; enterprises rise and fall on the basis of consumer choice.  Politics is not so simple, because it is tied to where we live and who we live around.  People do choose to leave one government and join another all the time, but usually only in small numbers, because few have the money to uproot readily, and fewer still want to give up the associations in their home country.

It wasn't always this way.  Anthropologists believe that a common method of conflict resolution in pre-Paleolithic Europe was "fission" -- just leaving.  If a band had a disagreement, part of them could split off and form a new band.  (This is also my favourite technique for conflict resolution with difficult people; I just avoid them.)  That ceased to be feasible when population increased and land use intensified; people had nowhere to go unless they would join another band, which might not want them.  We continue in this situation today, where leaving one government inevitably means joining another one.  Moreover, nearby governments tend to be similar, so there is rarely a dramatic reason to cross a border in the interest of improving one's position; a real improvement would require migrating halfway around the glob.  Only in rare circumstances do we find a despotic government next to a free one, in which people choose en masse to abandon the one for the other.  One such example was East and West Germany, and it shows why this is rarely the case:  East Germany had to devote enormous resources to keep its own people from leaving.

So we are stuck in a co-operative enterprise whether we like it or not.  We can modify the shape of our group by splitting into smaller groups (as several European nations did after the Cold War ended) or annexing one territory to another, but we cannot escape the fact that we must live together.  Arguably the fundamental feature of politics is deciding what group we're going to live with -- who is going to be in and who is going to be out.  This was the argument of Carl Schmitt in his work "The Concept of the Political" (Der Begriff des Politischen), and although he is a controversial theorist, I find his argument on this point compelling.  A similar point was made in a very different way by the 14th-century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun.  Having lived in a period of rising and falling dyansties, he identified "social cohesion" as a crucial element of the state.  People need to share something -- a common history, language, culture, set of beliefs or principles -- if they are to be able to govern themselves.  More similarities perhaps makes government easier, but successful government does not require sharing similarities on the level of Japan or Sweden.  The most important feature, I would argue, is a common belief in the values of the political system, together with some hope that those values can be implemented fairly by other people in society.  Differences in all of the other features, such as race, language, and religion, can be overcome provided people accept a common "meta-culture of rule-making," i.e. a common political system.

I believe in a strongly libertarian government, one in which the government interferes as little as possible with individuals and groups in society; but if there is not some sense of belonging to a worthwhile common enterprise, to a government that functions for everyone, then that government is in trouble. This is a very serious problem in places like Iraq, which have different religious and ethnic groups that have little history of co-operation and a long history of quarreling.  (Arguably, Iraq should not even try to form a government, but there are many other factors involved that are beyond the scope of this post.)  It is not as much of a problem for the United States, where people often have different backgrounds but share a general faith in the principle of self-government and in our constitution in particular.  But it could become a problem as people feel they are not served by the existing order and "opt out" (in a passive or active way) from society.  For this reason, I am opposed to ideas like the "Declaration of Individual Independence," by which individuals withdraw their allegiance to the government (without, however, engaging in general lawlessness), as well as to any political idea or philosophy that argues that some parts of society are fundamentally inimical to others and that a free, democratic political order is only a cheap way to paper over oppression of one group by another.  If this were true, it would deny the possibility of combining freedom and self-government; and if people believe it to be true, their belief makes everyone in society more vulnerable to tyranny.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Cult of Safety (A Nation of Laws, pt.IV)

When I was growing up, swimming pools typically had a high diving board and a low diving board.  Swimming pools today only have a low diving board and a lower diving board -- lawsuits have made high dives too costly to insure.  I lived in a neighbourhood where we had a pool and a very popular waterslide.  The neighbourhood association had to increase the number of lifeguards to run the waterslide to three:  one at the top of the slide to tell kids when to go, one at the bottom, and one at the bottom of the stairs to check that kids met the minimum height restriction.  Obviously, this was expensive, because these lifeguards were unable to keep an eye on the rest of the pool while the slide was open, so there had to be at least 5 lifeguards on duty to operate the slide.  Even with all that, there was discussion every year about shutting down the slide, because it was basically uninsurable.

What does this have to do with laws?  It relates to the idea, expressed in part III, that individuals are expected to police themselves.  We expect individuals to take normal care whenever they act, and to bear the consequences if things go wrong.  Or at least, we used to.  Now that we have "strict liability," organizations are responsible for things that go wrong even if no reasonable person could have foreseen the risk, and even if the injured party did not take normal precautions on his way to hurting himself.

People tend to think of liability in terms of large corporations.  They make many millions of dollars, so what difference does a lawsuit matter to them?  Indeed, it can be difficult to punish a corporation adequately for misdeeds because the corporation is so large that any normal fine is easily written off.  Even when it comes to suing small business or individuals, people brush off large settlements by concluding that it isn't the individual's money, it's the insurance company's.  But of course, this ignores the cost of insurance premiums, which drive up the cost of products and prevent many small businesses from ever getting started.

The number of things we can't do or don't have because of strict liability is staggering, and depressing.  I will only provide two more examples, from opposite ends of the spectrum -- I'm sure you have your own.  One is a product that was shut down by the government before there were lawsuits.  The company that created the enormously popular rare-earth magnets known as "Bucky Balls" is no longer in business because small children who swallow the magnets can be seriously injured.  Never mind that the company never marketed the toys to children, and labelled the packaging for ages 13+; the Consumer Product Safety Commission deemed them dangerous because some toddlers had swallowed the magnets and been hospitalized.  The company's owner issued the following statement on shutting down: 
"Due to baseless and relentless legal badgering by a certain four letter government agency, it's time to bid a fond farewell to the world's most popular adult desk toys, Buckyballs and Buckycubes. That's right: We're sad to say that Balls & Cubes have a one-way ticket to the Land-of-Awesome-Stuff-You-Should-Have-Bought-When-You-Had-the-Chance."

The other example concerns my homeowner's association.  People had taken to walking in the office parking lot for exercise.  The association, on advice from its lawyers, had to order the people to walk elsewhere for fear of lawsuits.  Someone could step in a pothole and injure himself, and then the association would be liable.

This is a legal problem, but it is also a social problem.  Citizens sitting on juries continue to rule in favour of massive judgments for injured people in the face of all common sense.  The premise is that other people should make our world completely safe, regardless of how irresponsibly we act.  Computer security expert Bruce Schneier has a timely article on just this question of our obsessive, and self-destructive, pursuit of security.  An article in Reason magazine discusses the scientific side of poor risk evaluation.  (There is a whole branch of science called "prospect theory" that has grown up around this question.)

The social problem is hard to fix, but the legal issue could be addressed by repealing the concept of strict liability.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. devoted a significant section of his book "The Common Law" to the question of liability.  The prominent legal principle in the matter was that "a man acts at his peril," i.e., he was responsible for his actions even if he could not reasonably anticipate their results.  Justice Holmes spends several paragraphs showing the problems with this based on other case law, and concludes his section with what I think is a very apt discussion of the social issue at stake.

"[T]he public generally profits by individual activity," he writes.  "As action cannot be avoided, and tends to the public good, there is obviously no policy in throwing the hazard of what is at once desirable and inevitable upon the actor."  He then explains the practical problems with making the state into "a mutual insurance company against accidents," but concludes that the most serious problem is "one of offending the sense of justice. Unless my act is of a nature to threaten others, unless under the circumstances a prudent man would have foreseen the possibility of harm, it is no more justifiable to make me indemnify my neighbor against the consequences, than to make me do the same thing if I had fallen upon him in a fit, or to compel me to insure him against lightning."

We have become a society in which "a man acts at his peril."  Society no longer encourages activity -- or does so to a much smaller degree than it used to -- but instead hems public action in at all turns with threats of liability, a great hidden tax upon the creative powers of our country.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Nation of Laws, pt.III

Thomas Aquinas asked:  what is the point of laws?  We know bad people will ignore them, and good people won't want to do those things anyway, so what good do laws do?  His answer was that laws help in the marginal cases -- people who might do bad things, but who are deterred by laws.

It is important to keep in mind that laws do not work perfectly, as Aquinas noted.  While some will change their behaviour to obey the law, others will never have wanted to do what the law forbids in the first place, and still others will continue their behaviour even if it violates a new law.  Another group of people will attempt to continue their behaviour within the bounds of the law by looking for loopholes, exceptions, and work-arounds.  That will lead to calls for more laws to close the loopholes.

More laws come at a cost.  There is an administrative cost, of course, but there is an equally important civic cost:  we expect people to obey the law, and to obey it, they have to know what it is -- ignorance of the law is no excuse.  By multiplying the number of laws, we impose a burden on citizens who are obligated to know them.

The civic cost also includes a loss of freedom.  For many laws, such as murder and burglary, this is not a problem; no one should have the freedom to kill or steal.  But other laws prevent things that would be fine if only a few people did them.  No one objects in principle to people rescuing baby seals or baby deer, but there is a danger of too many people interfering in wildlife.  We resort to laws that allow only licensed professionals to engage in such activities, but licensing is only a crude tool for limiting which people are allowed to interact freely with animals.  How much better if people observed the limits on their own; if only a few people used bad judgment, it would not cause a crisis, and we would need no law to prohibit well-intentioned people from doing good deeds.

Laws have to be made to fit the character of the people they would govern, as Montesqueieu argued.  A government can impose unpopular laws, such as Prohibition, but only with an enormous enforcement effort.  Alternately, we can overlook violations of unpopular laws.  But that option is worse, because it tells people the laws aren't important. If you're not going to enforce a law, don't create it.  I have always thought there is something fundamentally wrong with our speed limit laws for this reason.  Clearly, few local or state governments think the speed limits they set are really important, because they don't enforce them until someone is going at least 10 mph above the limit.  They should enforce the limit posted, or raise it until they think it is worth being enforced.

Have you ever wondered why the IRS expects you to fill out your own tax return?  It opens the door for people to cheat in many ways, and the IRS can only audit a small portion of returns; and, naturally, they focus on the ones that exhibit behaviour characteristic of other tax cheaters (such as claiming large charitable deductions).  But what an administrative nightmare it would be if the IRS had to calculate everyone's taxes for them.  It would basically be an unworkable system:  the government would have to hire tens of thousands of more employees to interrogate you about your sources of income and your deductions, and then fill out the forms.  The IRS trusts you, more or less, to do the job yourself because it has no choice.  Moreover, much as most people hate filing taxes, I have no doubt that they would hate the alternative of direct IRS participation even more.

Laws are like filing taxes.  The government relies on people to obey laws on their own; police forces and enforcement agencies are like auditors that go after the people -- hopefully a small number -- who don't police themselves.  If people don't believe a law is just, the government is required to take over enforcement in a centralized fashion instead of "outsourcing" the job to individuals.  This is a very costly way of governing, and imposes a huge burden on the citizenry.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The end of tipping

A recent article draws attention to several high-end restaurants that have eliminated tipping, and suggests that this might become a trend.  If so, I say good riddance.

I'm glad to have the restaurant increase its prices and eliminate tips.  It's not the money; it's having to figure out how much to leave.  Not the arithmatic, of course, but the psychological burden of deciding how much a person deserves for bringing me food.  The whole server-servee relationship is awkward in America, where no one wants to be a servant and all but the very wealthy feel uncomfortable being served.

The practice of tipping goes back to actual servants, whom masters offered additional incentives for difficult tasks or rewards for a job well done.  Americans originally didn't like the implied master-servant relationship when tipping was introduced from Europe, and the practice was fought on several levels:  some private citizens formed an Anti-Tipping League, while a number of state governments passed laws against tipping (which, however, proved unenforceable).

In principle, tipping gives the customer the opportunity to reward good service or penalize bad service.  In practice, there is very little relationship between the amount of the tip and the quality of the service.  No wonder, since we constantly hear how waiters and waitresses need tip money to make a living wage.  Not leaving a tip often consigns them to a nearly trivial minimum wage of under $3 an hour, so it would take horrible service indeed to warrant that kind of reaction.  If restaurants would pay servers what they earn and need, it would not be on the diner's conscience whether a tip would be sufficient.

Even if restaurants paid their staff more but still allowed tipping, I wouldn't be very happy about it.  Tipping would still be an awkward relationship in which the diner declares that he can spare some money for the underprivileged staff.  (One argument against having higher prices instead of tipping is that poorer people won't be able to eat out.  So you don't have to tip if your income is below a certain amount?  I never see that mentioned in articles about how much to tip.  I've read numerous comments from servers that, if you can't afford the tip, you shouldn't eat out.)

And then there is the awkward relationship between the diners who are eating together but picking up their own checks.  Who wants to seem stingy in the face of one's peers?  This is one of the last holdouts of the noble ethos.  Hundreds of years ago, people liked to show their magnanimity by dispensing money freely, even if they couldn't really afford it.  They weren't supposed to worry about keeping precise monetary accounts because they were about greatness of spirit.  In our mercantile culture, this has died out in almost every other way save tipping.  Few people have qualms about packing up their leftovers to take home -- definitely a bourgeois rather than a noble act -- but many people like to show their generosity by tipping freely.

Perhaps that's why the average tip in America has increased from 10% around 1900 to 18.9% today.  I've heard various numbers recommended throughout my life, from 10% up.  Many suggest 15% or 18% as a minimum nowadays, so I don't know what counts as a generous tip.

I admit it, I don't have the noble spirit.  I like to know how much money is required for goods and services so I can calculate it in advance and not have to worry about it.  Now I have to think about it, not only when being served at a restaurant, but when being served by a barista or when eating at a buffet.  (What am I tipping the waiter or waitress for, I wonder, if I am expected to tip someone at a buffet where I get my own food?)  Not to mention pizza delivery, newspaper delivery, postal delivery, haircuts, taxi rides, coatroom attending, and an ever-expanding array of services.

I'm sorry, my mind isn't wired that way.  It adds stress to my life by forcing me to make the calculation myself whether and how much to tip -- and feeling guilty if I choose too small a tip.  Just tell me the amount, and then I can make a regular economic decision about whether it is worth the money.

A Nation of Laws, part II

Let's suppose for a moment that you believe, as I argued in my last post, that we have too many laws.  The obvious question is, why?  One reason is what a friend of mine calls "government by anecdote":  something dramatic happens, and everyone says, "the government should do something about that!"

I agree with him that this is a terrible way to govern.  Sometimes tragedies require immediate action, but usually they do not; often, there is nothing obvious that the government can do.  As a result, lawmakers resort to symbolic laws that have little or nothing to do with the tragedy itself.  There is a school shooting; Congress calls for banning "assault weapons," even though the definition of assault weapons is irrelevant to the shooting in question.  Maybe people would feel better if there were no guns with bayonet sockets or grenade launchers, but is anyone going to be any safer?  How many shootings have occurred using grenade launchers?

The primary political impulse for the government to do something is, of course, liberalism, in which the government is responsible for everything.  But, at a more basic level, the real driving force is people who don't want anything bad to happen.  School shootings are tragic, but they are not necessarily increasing.  The average student is extremely safe in schools, and many students are safer in schools than they are at home.  This is the same point that Michael Moore was trying to make, in his own inept way, about the 9/11 attacks:  they were dramatic and attention-grabbing, but the actual chance of an American dying in a domestic terrorist attack is minuscule.  (I think terrorist attacks are important for another reason, but more on that another time.)

We live in a nation of over 300 million people, with virtually no barriers to the spread of information.  Because unusual, dramatic, and scary stories grab the most attention, they are drastically overrepresented in the news we see and read and hear.  Often, laws are already in place designed to prevent a particular tragedy.  Sometimes, procedures can be improved to do a better job of catching would-be criminals before it is too late, but the effect of adding yet another set of rules to similar situations is likely to be more bureaucracy and little extra safety.

Sometimes, we just need to learn to live with the fact that the world is uncertain.  You've probably seen people on t.v., relatives of someone (often a child) who has been killed needlessly -- maybe a shooting, maybe drowned in a swimming pool, maybe caught in a house fire.  They go on the news and say, earnestly, "I want to make sure that no parent ever has to go through this again."  Thus is legislation born.  But this is an unrealistic standard -- it sounds silly even to point it out, but often, no one does point it out, and people talk as though preventing all future tragedies of a certain type were a reasonable goal.  Tragedies will always happen.  We can reduce some kinds, and we should, but we should always ask whether a proposed law is likely to have a significant effect, and whether it is worth the cost in liberty that we pay to have another law on the books.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Nation of Laws?

Both conservatives and liberals spend a lot of time complaining about oppressive government, so you might think they would agree more often.  I think there are some issues where they do agree, and where they should co-operate because they can do something useful to reign in a government that sometimes get out of control.

I found such an issue when I was reading the DailyKos website.  I visit the DailyKos because the people who comment there can be counted on never to say anything nice about a Republican or a conservative.  In that sense, they are much like mainstream news media, but are less restrained about their views and therefore give me a sense of the motives that underlie liberals' arguments.  On this occasion, I was surprised to find an article that I agreed with almost 100%.  The subject:  the state of Wisconsin was alerted to an animal shelter that held a deer, which is apparently against some state law or regulation.  They raided the shelter with an armed enforcement team and killed the deer on the spot.

Hardly any sane person could be in favour of killing a baby deer named Giggles (yes, that was the name the shelter had given the fawn), yet that is exactly what happened.  Not a deer that happened to be rabid or that had mauled a toddler or anything, just a random deer housed by an animal shelter.  What kind of logic could lead to such an action?  More on that in a moment.

For now, realize that there such government actions are not that unusual.  I don't mean they happen every day in every town, but something like this is so bizarre that you might think it would be an anomaly, that you would have a hard time finding a comparable example.

Not so.  Consider the family in Michigan that rescued a baby deeer after its mother was killed by a car.  They had been raising it for five years when Michigan's Department of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Natural Resources found out about it.  Since they were not "licensed rehabilitators," the family was told they would have to release the animal.  This story has a happy ending insofar as the family got to keep the deer, but only because Michigan did not send in a SWAT team in the style of the Wisconsin raid and dispense justice on the spot.  A campaign of people who are not insane organized on Facebook, a petition gathered thousands of signatures, and the government eventually agreed to bend its rules.  The family could keep the deer, but still has to pay an annual fee of $450 for the privilege of caring for a defenseless animal, as well as having annual disease checkups.

Even a momentary act of kindness can be punished by the state.  A Massachussetts couple who rescued a seal that had been badly mauled by a shark faced a possible $5,000 fine under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it illegal to touch or harass the mammals.  Probably the seal, which was photographed kissing its rescuers, didn't feel harassed, but no one bothered to ask its opinion.  According to the local aquarium, "anyone who thinks a seal is in distress should instead call the U.S. Coast Guard or emergency officials."

This is the overwhelming direction of policy now:  leave everything to experts.  But even when the authorities have the resources to intervene and agree to do so, that doesn't mean that the emergency will be taken care of.  In England, a man who suffered a seizure proceeded to drown in three feet of water while 25 emergency workers looked on.  The fire crew that arrived first hadn't been trained to enter the water, which was shallow enough that they could wade in (and all were able to swim in any case).  A policeman was ordered to stay out when he attempted to rescue the man.  A paramedic was kept out because his lack of "protective clothing" might put him in violation of the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.  Thank goodness the government was looking after his interests, otherwise, who knows what might have happened?

This is part of our "safety first" culture, which warrants an article of its own.  The point here is the proliferation of rules that prevent ordinary human charity.  Cities around the country have cracked down people and groups that wanted to do no more than distribute food to hungry people -- in Raleigh, Houston, and Phoenix. In Hartford, a man who had been giving out free haircuts in a city park for the past 25 years was ordered to stop.

Are there legitimate concerns in some of these cases?  Yes, mostly questions of safety and sanitation.  Who is to blame?  While the death of Giggles was the result of an administrator taking things much too far, not all the cases can be blamed on bureaucrats.  The Phoenix church was ordered to stop distributing food after a judge ruled against them, and city officials in Hartford only moved against Joe the Barber because neighbours complained expressed concern about safety and sanitation.

One thing all of these cases have in common, however, is the existence of laws.  Laws with reasonable-sounding objectives, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations.  And the one common solution I can find for these issues is:  have fewer laws.

I am by no means an anarchist.  Laws are absolutely necessary, and I have no doubt that our complex society needs so many that -- sad to say -- a phalanx of lawyers will be necessary to interpret and understand them.  But we could do with far, far fewer laws than we presently have.

A law is a blunt instrument.  It is very solid, in a country like the United States where respect for the law is widespread and enforcement relatively uncorrupt, but it is inevitably blunt.  Regulating the distribution of food, which is normally a commercial enterprise, sounds like a good idea in principle, but it ends up getting used to prevent people from giving out charity.  You can write in exceptions, but that just makes the law more complicated and almost certainly still interferes with some unobjectionable activities.  Already, the laws being cited are obscure enough that the criminals perpetrators accused citizens have no idea what law they are breaking.  "No representative from the Raleigh Police Department was willing to tell us which ordinance we were breaking," said one member of the Raleigh church.  Apparently it wasn't too important, because the church had been giving out free food for six years without any government intervention.  Then, according to the church's pastor, one day "an officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested."

I think it's perfectly reasonable to suggest that you may be violating a number of laws in your everyday life without even being aware of them.  If the government decides to start enforcing that law one day, you may find yourself in court, or even in prison, without having realized you were doing anything wrong.

That is not my idea of a free society.  It is not truly a nation of laws, but a nation of administrative whim in which no citizen can expect to know even a remote fraction of the laws he is supposed to obey.  And the trend is getting worse.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is 907 pages, long enough that even proponents admitted that they hadn't read it, and it has produced thousands of pages more in regulations.  While the PPACA is a milestone in the length and complexity of legislation, it is just one example of a trend in which government laws (at all levels) are getting longer and regulating things in more minute detail.

Some laws can be fixed; in some cases, it is worth living with the burden of more regulations.  And in many cases, it is better to live with more ambiguity, accept the fact that not everything is going to be perfectly safe or fair, but that it's better to use your judgment as an individual to decide what things to eat or see or smoke or avoid than to live under the weight of massive regulations.