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It's About Time

Would it surprise you to hear that, since 1836, it has been illegal in North Carolina to wear a peacock feather facing forwards in your hat after dusk? Even though I completely made that up, it probably wouldn't surprise you if it had been true; for all I know, it may even be true! We've all heard of similarly crazy-sounding laws that remain on the books, and that is why time should receive more attention than it has by government.

Historical Context

It didn't start this way. The Declaration of Independence recognizes both the necessity of replacing a poorly functioning government and the general unwillingness of a populous to do so. It is somewhat incongruous, then, that the Constitution makes little provision to stem the growth of government over time. Even the President had no term limit until the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951.

Clearly it was thought that the checks and balances would suffice to limit excessive political influence. Clearly that was a mistake. Rather than reversing or removing statutes that previously elected officials put into place, too often is the case that a newly elected individual seeks to actually further that abuse of power for their own ends.

A particularly heated example of this in the USA is the topic of abortion. People somehow continually treat it like a political issue despite a long history of politicians never actually doing anything about it once they are elected. Indeed, keeping abortion legal actually benefits those politicians who say they're against it, because it locks up a segment of the voting public in their favor without them being reasonably held to account for their inaction despite a professed anti-abortion stance.

Future Context

All sorts of similar laws, good or not, keep piling up and keep fostering an increasingly divisive government. The result is a body politic that is attacking itself and, rather than looking for a cure, the system seems to be feeding the disease. So if we can agree that permanent laws are a cancer on a free society, let's look at a few impossibly stupid ways to get things back in check.

Fix the number of laws

When the number of laws restricting an individual's freedom is unbounded it is impossible for even the most decent of citizens to know whether or not they're doing something wrong. The old adage is that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to be anything but ignorant of the complex maze of statutes that apply to a person at any given time.

A fixed number of laws, whether it's 10, 100, or 1000, not only allows people to get a proper handle on what it means to be a respectable citizen in a proper society, but also limits the extent to which corruption can influence the government. In order to prevent a freedom, then, a politician would have to necessarily remove a prohibition of some other freedom.

Limit the time of laws

Ideally, laws should only be passed to address some specific, solvable problem that can only be handled by a government. It is then only reasonable that the power be granted for the amount of time necessary to deal with the problem. If more time is necessary, it seems fitting that regular renewal be a requirement.

While it may seem unnecessary for intractable social ills, like murder, to be revisited for legality, the argument from the flip side is that there is no harm in reexamining something so cut-and-dried compared to the inestimable harm in never reconsidering why many lesser laws are in place (e.g., where the line is drawn for legal and illegal drugs).

Expire unenforced laws

Perhaps the more reasonable approach is a bit of a hybrid: laws themselves should have a statute of limitations. Even a well-meaning law put on the books, for example, in 1836 should not exist as a potential for abuse if it has not otherwise resulted in arrests or prosecutions after 100 or 50 or even 10 years. It's hard to see the value in bothering to outlaw something that doesn't happen.

Limitations necessitate limitations

In summary, no government has unlimited resources at their disposal to pursue every little perceived injustice that occurs. The more you criminalize, the more criminals you have to detain and the fewer (willing) taxpayers you have to cover the bill, and a larger bill for each to cover. It is a runaway effect that has doomed many governments in the past, and steps need to be taken to ensure that the USA does not fail as a result of such petty political buffoonery.