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There ought to be a law - or not

Posted: April 27, 2013 - 11:03pm

“I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages.”

– Bill Mauldin

During those precarious days when almost nothing I told my teenager was acceptable to him, and he thought little he did was acceptable to me, we had one disagreement I’ll never forget.

My 15-year-old could not understand why I wouldn’t let him ride to a party with a 19-year-old at the wheel of the car. Without divulging all my fears, I tried to explain why I didn’t want him either in the same car or at the same party with kids I thought were too old (experienced) for him.

I won that round. But when he asked later if he could go to a movie with Jerry, “who is 16 and just got his license last week,” and I wouldn’t let him go because Jerry hadn’t had his license long enough, even I sympathized with my exasperated son.

He was certain he’d be imprisoned with his impossible-to-please, warden mother until no one invited him anywhere, anymore.

Laws and rules – who hasn’t wished there were fewer of them, or agreed with pundit Jeremy Bentham that “every law is an infraction of liberty”? A recent discussion about why we have so many laws now, and why our aptly named “lawmakers” are constantly making more, has me wondering why, in a civilized society, we spend so much time selecting those who make our laws, and hiring so many others to enforce them.

In fact, if we tallied all the legislative and law enforcement salaries in the country, plus their facilities, equipment and the cost of apprehending and incarcerating lawbreakers, we might be talking about the single most expensive category in our municipal, state and federal budgets. It’s true that private security guards represent one of the fastest growing professions in our country today.

But is all this necessary? Subjects like voting rights, civil rights, minority rights – and, currently, gun and immigration rights – are constantly on the House and Senate floor.

Wouldn’t you think we’d get it right someday, that everything that could be corrected, regulated, deregulated or properly defined would finally have its own set of rules, and we could start downsizing legislative and law enforcement agencies just as we do administratively improved corporate giants like the airlines and AT&T?

“The reason we have so many laws,” someone has said, “is that we have lost the ability to trust each other.”

Interesting thought. We opt for term limits for our lawmakers because we don’t trust them to keep from contamination by the system, while more recent laws like “The Patriot Act” and the multi-layered “Privacy Act” reveal a national paranoia when it comes to trusting everyone else.

At the same time, with the soon-to-be implemented Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – as a prime example, most laws become controversial and complex as soon as they are passed, and other laws are proposed to correct their flaws.

But as every newscast or written publication reveals, we live in a flawed society where imperfect lawmakers are chosen by the imperfect people they represent. Sometimes we get it right; often we don’t. Sometimes a law is short-sighted, and it is better to change it than try to enforce what has become unenforceable. Likewise, we often need to replace what has become obsolete, like building safer vehicles and highways, while keeping speed limits what they were when roads were narrow and few people had cars.

Ideally, in a civilized society, human behavior should be controlled from within, rather than legislated from without. But until the flaws which expose human life, limb and property are removed from human intent, it seems we citizens will be subject to the laws of the land – and our poor, misunderstood teenagers will be kept under home rule.

All this is, to some extent, fortunate. Anarchy is a terrible substitute for law, order and the safekeeping of those we love.

(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer and the author of As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past. Email comments to seabara@aol.com)

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