The PJ Tatler

Too Many Laws, Not Enough Sense

One of the dreaded Koch Brothers, Charles, has joined the swelling chorus of Americans (by which I mean me) who believe that we have too many laws, and that we are rapidly approaching a point at which everything will be a criminal offense. From a country with no federal laws until the first Congress was seated, we are now swimming in a flood tide of legislation, as if Congress (and the states, and the cities and the local municipalities; what we are really swimming in is too much government, at every level) had nothing else to do but pass laws. Here’s Charles Koch:

As Americans, we like to believe the rule of law in our country is respected and fairly applied, and that only those who commit crimes of fraud or violence are punished and imprisoned. But the reality is often different. It is surprisingly easy for otherwise law-abiding citizens to run afoul of the overwhelming number of federal and state criminal laws. This proliferation is sometimes referred to as “overcriminalization,” which affects us all but most profoundly harms our disadvantaged citizens.

Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement. As we have seen all too often, it can place our police officers in harm’s way, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.

How did we get in this situation? It began with well-intentioned lawmakers who went overboard trying to solve perceived or actual problems. Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year. This has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.) As a result, the United States is the world’s largest jailer — first in the world for total number imprisoned and first among industrialized nations in the rate of incarceration. The United States represents about 5 percent of the world’s population but houses about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

We have paid a heavy price for mass incarceration and could benefit by reversing this trend.

Koch takes a libertarian view of the subject. In a piece I wrote four years for the New York Post, my take was more like: enough, already! Enough from Congress, enough from the regulatory agencies, enough. The American impulse to solve every passing, quotidian problem with a new law has gotten completely out of hand:

In the near future, everyone will be a criminal for at least 15 minutes, whether they know it or not…

Short, clearly written and to the point, the Constitution is not just another one of 31,000 new laws — it is the law. It tells us what the government must do — roads, post offices, patents, armies — and, more important, what the government can’t do. The Bill of Rights is one long Thou Shalt Not aimed at the feds.

It’s high time Congress stopped worrying about being “productive” — which means “passing more laws” — and started undoing the very real mess it’s made.

No wonder Harvey Silverglate, a crackerjack defender of freedom, called his book Three Felonies a Day. That’s how many crimes you personally have already committed today, before you got out of bed, and for which you could go to jail for a very long time. For the more laws Congress passes, the more cops they’re going to need to enforce them. Is a police state really the endgame for the American Republic? It’s long past time to redefine the function of the federal and state legislatures to include repealing laws as well as simply passing new ones.