Out of court

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Nation of Laws and Lawbreakers

It is commonly said that America is a nation of laws. There are so many different laws in America, starting with the U.S. and the 50 state Constitutions, the federal statutes written by Congress for over 200 years, the 50 states' individual codes, the innumerable city and county ordinances, that no one can come up with a number other than to say 'maybe a million or so.' So does that make us law abiding? Not necessarily.

Historically, we were founded by lawbreakers who rebelled against the tax and other restrictions England imposed on the colonies. The real Boston tea party players were criminals to the English but the first patriots to us. Since then we have a tradition of resistance to various laws. Recall the underground railroad for runaway slaves, or the rum runners in the 1920's. How many of us are here either because our ancestors were draft dodgers or entered America without permission of the government? In the 1960's, peace protesters broke the law and so did marijuana smokers in droves. Illegal drug usage is still happening on a large scale, despite severe punishments for the suppliers.

There are those who believe that all drugs should be legalized and which in theory would stop the crime that surrounds the drug business. Easier said than done. Should the government get into the business of dispensing these drugs, or should it be a regulated industry like alcohol? If legalized, then minors would have to be prohibited. Would that still lead to more crime? I know when my kids were minors, they could easily find some adult to make a straw purchase for them. There were bums who hung out by the liquor stores who filled in nicely. Legalizing, while resolving some issues, will open other cans of worms. In Amsterdam, the Dutch government is moving back toward more restrictions on who can use drugs, prohibiting drug sales to non-citizens. The purported reason: to get rid of the 'criminal industry' surrounding the freedom to use drugs.

As vexing as drug laws are, traffic laws are nearly infinite in their numbers. Yet two violations--speeding and drunk driving--are still commonplace. Just drive on the freeway and note the average speed can often be at least 10 miles per hour over the limit, unless highway patrol is visible. Of course if you travel in Europe, speeders are even more rampant; whereas, drunk diving is less common due to better public transportation and more draconian penalites.

In America, drunk driving has declined because of higher penalties and well publicized enforcement. But what about texting while driving--which may be nearly as dangerous as drunk driving? Everyone agrees that 'smart phones' are risky to drive while using, and yet. . .

What does it take to get people to hang up and drive? The same methods that have caused drunk driving to decline. Should we send those who text while driving to jail? If we want to stop the keystroke distraction, yes! Will we? You know the cell phone companies and other lobbies will fight it. If it happens, it will take time and more bad accidents to change these new habits.

Then there are environmental laws and regulations. Recently Seattle banned plastic grocery bags, as have other cities. Is this the right way to get people to stop creating indestructible acres of plastic garbage? Or does this just add more expense to rising food costs? Speaking of which, New York City's mayor is pushing a ban on large sodas. How far should the 'nanny state' go in protecting people from bad consumer choices. Would such a law like this spawn soda renegades who would get around the ban with clever 'soda structuring?' And is mandatory broccoli consumption the next step to legislating good nutrition?

It all reminds me of Dupont's infamous corporate tagline: "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry." Now we might say: "Better Things for Better Living...Through Laws and Regulations." If we keep up the lawmaking, I suspect the lawbreaking traditions of this nation may be in for another great revival.

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