"Are there too many laws?"
This question was presented to me during a class debate on economics. Whilst the debate was on the topic of deregulation, as a lawyer, this query struck me as particularly intriguing. In an age where the internet is awash with memes poking fun at absurd regulations like women not being allowed to fall asleep under hair dryers in Florida, or the requirement to smile at all times except at funerals and hospitals in Milan, it’s only logical to wonder whether there are too many laws - especially the foolish ones. Those who have explored the depths of the Civil or Criminal Code can attest to their complexity and length, proposing the question: is the current volume of laws imposing an unnecessary burden on society, and would a reduced volume of laws be able to effectively govern our world?
WHAT DO LAWS DO?
Although not commonly noticed in everyday life, everything we do relates back to our nation’s law. What does the law actually do?
a) Maintain order, regulate immoral behaviour
b) Protect rights, justice, and liberty
c) Resolve disputes
d) Regulate businesses and the economy
e) Address current issues
f) Protect the vulnerable
g) Provide clarity
These are just a few of the many ways that the law plays a role in our lives. Think about it: without traffic laws, our roads would be in chaos. We’ve all seen what happens in the Purge, and that is what a lawless society would look like. As Senator J William Fulbright said, “the law is the essential foundation of stability and order both within societies and in international relations.”
HOW ARE LAWS MADE IN THE FIRST PLACE?
In the Anglosphere, the common law system is used, whereby a legislature creates the laws and the judiciary applies them through their interpretation of the statute with reference to previous related rulings. This is opposed to civil law, where legislation is key to the creation of laws. These legislations are usually embodied in civil codes originating from the Napoleonic Code in France. This is partially the reason why you can only practise law in the country you study, unless you live in the Commonwealth.
THERE ARE TOO MANY LAWS!
An exaggerated amount of laws in the legal code results in government focus being too inconsistent. Legislators are overwhelmed with the creation of new laws, instead of diverting their attention to other key areas of government, like developing impoverished areas. It also overloads the justice system with an influx of people getting arrested for various crimes, straining the police force and the judicial courts. As a result, the rule of law suffers as the government is unable to keep up with the number of cases received daily.
John Locke said that, “the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.” The purpose of laws is not to restrict activity but to preserve freedom. If there are too many laws like there are now, how are individuals supposed to live freely? There need not be so many laws, but rather laws of better quality. It is not in the public interest to have so many laws that restrict the ability to live life as they would want.
By imposing too many laws, the number of procedures, regulations, and paperwork for approval increases. Moreover, this increases the chance that people break laws that they are unaware of. It is estimated that the average American breaks three laws a day without even noticing it. This allows for blackmail and extortion where corrupt law enforcement officials can threaten to prosecute people for crimes. How is it fair to prosecute a person who didn’t even know their actions are illegal?
Furthermore, too many laws cause overlap, conflict, and contradiction. The law is supposed to be a simple, clear-cut set of rules which society has to follow. How can we charge people for crimes of breaking the law if we cannot even establish what the law means and how it applies?
THERE AREN'T TOO MANY LAWS!
Making laws is a complicated process. They have to go through many amendments in the legislature. In common law systems, judges go through the case meticulously before ruling on a case. Because of that, most laws serve a purpose. Laws are not idly created. By this logic, all laws are necessary, and therefore, there can’t be too many laws, especially in an ever changing world.
Vigilantism is the act of creating punishments for actions that are not against the law. This is mostly driven by the thought that the justice system is incompetent or corrupt, conveyed in the classic Robin Hood story. Vigilantism is an illegal extrajudicial process and directly goes against the principles of a civilised, lawful society. If vigilantism is to be prevented, sufficient laws need to exist to prevent vigilantism and the crimes it aims to prevent.
The idea of justice is that it is uniform and equally dispensed, where no one is above the law. With more laws, loopholes are able to be eliminated and therefore no act of injustice is able to bypass punishment. This allows even odd crimes to be prosecuted, allowing justice to be served.
By having more laws, more restrictions are placed on produced goods. This allows healthier, higher quality commodities for the average citizen. When goods are made, producers have to abide by the law and follow certain guidelines. This prevents toxic chemicals and unhealthy substances from being consumed, preserving public interest. Furthermore, these guidelines make exported goods of better quality, allowing the goods to be in higher demand, raising national income, and therefore growing the economy.
Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” By preserving the older unused laws, we preserve century-old history and tradition that allows future generations to look back and learn. There is no harm in preserving old laws for the sake of reference and education. This is called desuetude, where legal principles and statutes lapse after not being enforced after a certain period of time after inserting a sunset clause. This tradition allows us to preserve our culture and conserve our values.
It’s pretty safe to say that the current state of the law is not so bad as to characterise it as having too many laws. However, there is a point to be made that the laws we pass and use have to be binding, efficient and usable; in other words, quality over quantity. Alternatively, we could enforce a law review system where a committee purges unnecessary laws and regulations that streamline the legal system. As society progresses, we should be looking to create more laws to regulate the newly expanded horizons instead of cutting back. Ultimately, the question should prompt a reevaluation of the legal framework and the legal system rather than a wholesale dismissal of the law.
Therefore, no, there are not too many laws.