Tuesday, September 3, 2013

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.

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