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Complex societies need simple laws

by John Stossel

“If you have 10,000 regulations,” Winston Churchill said, “you destroy all respect for law.”

He was right. But Churchill never imagined a government that would add 10,000 year after year. That’s what we have in America. We have 160,000 pages of rules from the feds alone. States and localities have probably doubled that. We have so

many rules that legal specialists can’t keep up. Criminal lawyers call the rules “incomprehen- sible.” They are. They are also “uncountable.” Congress has created so many criminal of- fenses that the American Bar Association says it would be futile to even attempt to estimate the total.

So what do the politicians and bureaucrats of the permanent government do? They pass more rules.

That’s not good. It paralyzes life. Politicians sometimes say they understand the problem. They promise to “simplify.” But they rarely do. Mostly, they come up with new rules. It’s just natural. It’s how the public measures politicians. Schoolchildren on Washington tours ask, “What laws did you pass?” If they don’t pass new laws, the media whine about the “do-nothing Congress.” This is also not good. When so much is illegal, common sense dies. Out of fear of breaking rules, people stop innovating, trying, helping.Think I exaggerate? Consider what happenedin Britain, a country even more rule-bound thanAmerica. A man had an epileptic seizure andfell into a shallow pond. Rescue workers mighthave saved him, but they wouldn’t enter the3-foot-deep pond. Why? Because “safety” rulespassed after rescuers drowned in a river nowprohibited “emergency workers” from enteringwater above their ankles.

Only 30 minutes later,when rescue workers with “stage 2 training” arrived,did they enter the water, discover that theman was dead and carry him to the approvedinflatable medical tent. Twenty other cops,firemen and “rescuers” stood next to the pondand watched.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu,sometimes called the first libertarian thinker,said, “The more artificial taboos and restrictionsthere are in the world, the more the peopleare impoverished…. The more that laws andregulations are given prominence, the morethieves and robbers there will be.”

He complainedthat there were “laws and regulationsmore numerous than the hairs of an ox.” Whatwould he have thought of our world?Big-government advocates will say thatas society grows more complex, laws mustmultiply to keep up.

The opposite is true. Itis precisely because society is unfathomablycomplex that laws must be kept simple. Nolegislature can possibly prescribe rules for thecomplex network of uncountable transactionsand acts of cooperation that take place everyday. Not only is the knowledge that would berequired to make such a regulatory regimework unavailable to the planners, it doesn’tactually exist, because people don’t knowwhat they will want or do until they confrontalternatives in the real world. Any attempt tomanage a modern society is more like a bullin a darkened china shop than a finely tunedmachine.

No wonder the schemes of politiciansgo awry.FA Hayek wisely said, “The curious task ofeconomics is to demonstrate to men how littlethey really know about what they imagine theycan design.” Another Nobel laureate, James M.Buchanan, put it this way: “Economics is theart of putting parameters on our utopias.”Barack Obama and his ilk in both partiesdon’t want parameters on their utopias. Theythink the world is subject to their manipulation.That idea was debunked years ago.

“With good men and strong governmentseverything was considered feasible,” the greatAustrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote.But with the advent of economics, “it waslearned that… there is something operativewhich power and force are unable to alter andto which they must adjust themselves if theyhope to achieve success, in precisely the sameway as they must taken into account the lawsof nature.”

I wish our politicians knew that. I wishthey’d stop their presumptuous schemes.We need to end the orgy of rule-making atonce and embrace the simple rules that trueliberals like America’s founders envisioned.

John Stossel is host of “Stossel” on the FoxBusiness Network. He’s the author of GiveMe a Break and of Myth, Lies, and DownrightStupidity.

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