The problem with laws

So, one of the stupid things us humans do – and I know, there are a bunch – is try to create a rigid code of rules to describe acceptable behavior in every situation. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the Milgram effect wasn’t such a big thing with us – once rules are written down, we tend to follow them blindly *even when we know they are wrong*.

Anyone who’s done much coding understands that it’s *incredibly* difficult to get bug free code. Laws are essentially code for humans, and to add to the fun they’re often written by people who don’t have much experience coding at all, and often written for politically expedient reasons without considering the rule of unintended consequences. They also don’t get much revision or debugging.

I submit to the crowd that the basic *idea* of having laws is flawed. What we need are algorithms that can be used to judge the appropriateness of any situation, with broad group consensus, not a attempt to imagine every situation beforehand and codify what the punishment should be if someone chooses to take a certain action.

I repeatedly see laws getting used to justify, or at least call reasonable, behavior by the criminal justice system that is both abusive and counterproductive. One of the ones that makes me the most angry is the teens who are arrested for “producing child porn” when they do things like sexting, which is perfectly reasonable and natural behavior and should not be illegal at all. I understand the original point of the laws they were breaking was to protect children from predatory adults, but if our system was somewhat better designed, vindictive and/or milgrammed police officers and judges would not be able to use them to hurt the very people they were designed to protect.

I also see one problem with the *massive* concordance of laws we currently have is it is virtually impossible to even know what’s illegal any more. Unless you spend your life doing little else, there’s not a lot of hope of knowing what’s in the hodgepodge of state, federal, and local laws that apply to your current behavior. It’s also undoubtedly true that the people authoring the laws have not thought about the long term impact of their decisions. Most of the punishments are vastly beyond what the crime entails. Watching Le Miz the other day reminded me that we still think jailing someone for a year for stealing $500 is a reasonable thing to do – while at the same time, our jails *break people worse* in several ways:

A: They are designed to punish, not to reform. This punishment often leads to justifiable anger on the part of the punished, which leads to them being *less* inclined to work with our society

B: People are programmable – and we tend to entrain on our peer group. Locking up all the criminals together just means they entrain off each other, thusly making the convicts *more* criminal

If our desire is not to live in, to use Jordon Peale’s phrase, a ‘fucked up dystopia’, we should be trying to figure out how to get the people who break laws to fix themselves and develop as individuals in ways that ensure they won’t reoffend. I’ve talked in the past about one thing that might help accomplish that (see this) but this isn’t a subject I’m a expert in – it is, however, a subject that we could science until we had a well defined science of rehabilitation.

However, I think we also need to recongize that the law itself is often hurting people – we repeatedly criminalize things that should not be illegal just because some subset of people think that people should not be free to take that particular action. Religious people have a long history of using the law as a club to enforce their particular set of morals – even when the things they are criminalizing hurt no one but the person committing the act. The law should not be used to bully people based on your personal opinion about what is right and wrong – we should be able to develop a science of right and wrong as well, created by measuring harm to others.

One Response to “The problem with laws”

  1. bunne Says:

    “we should be trying to figure out how to get the people who break laws to fix themselves and develop as individuals in ways that ensure they won’t re-offend.”

    “I’ll tell you what justice is. Justice is the law. And the law is man’s feeble attempt to set down the principles of decency. Decency! And decency is not a deal. It isn’t an angle, or a contract, or a hustle. Decency… decency is what your grandmother taught you. It’s in your bones. Now you go home, and you be decent people. Be decent.” – Judge White “The Bonfire Of The Vanities”

    There’s something to be said for morality. It’s not as arcane and old-fashioned as the sales pitch claims it to be.

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