"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 altercation I'll never forget.
My 15-year-old couldn't 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's 16 and just got his license last week," but I wouldn't let him go because Jerry hadn't had his license long enough, even I sympathized with my exasperated son, who was certain he'd be imprisoned with his impossible-to-please warden mother until no one invited him anywhere, ever again.
Laws and rules - who hasn't wished there were fewer of them, or felt with Jeremy Bentham that "every law is an infraction of liberty?"
A recent discussion about why we have so many laws now and our "lawmakers" are constantly making more, has me wondering why, in a civilized society, we spend so much time and money selecting those who make the laws and hiring so many others to enforce them.
If we tallied all the legislative salaries in the country, plus their facilities, equipment and the cost of apprehending and incarcerating those who break the laws, we may be talking about the single most expensive category in our municipal, state or federal budgets. And it's a fact that private security guards represent one of the fastest-growing professions in the country today.
But is all this necessary? Voting rights, civil rights, consumer rights, speed limits, term limits and countless other concerns are constantly on a variety of House and Senate floors. Wouldn't you think we'd get it right someday, that everything that could be corrected, regulated or better-defined would finally have its own set of rules and we could start downsizing legislative bodies like we do corporate giants like General Motors and AT&T?
"The reason we have so many laws," someone has said, "is that we've lost the ability to trust each other."
Interesting thought. We opt for term limits for our lawmakers, even our finest public servants, because we don't trust them to keep from contamination by the system or to know when their effective years are past, while recent laws like the terror-driven "Patriot Act" or the complex "Privacy Act" reveal a national paranoia when it comes to trusting just about anyone else. Also, as these two Acts attest, most laws become controversial as soon as they are enacted, and other laws are made to correct their flaws.
But we live in a flawed society, where imperfect lawmakers are chosen by the imperfect people they represent. Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we don't. Sometimes a law is short-sighted and it's better to change it than to try enforcing what has become obsolete - like building safer vehicles and highways, but keeping speed limits what they were when roads were narrow and few people had cars.
Ideally, in a democratic society, human behavior should be controlled from within rather than legislated from without. But until human life, limb and property are immune from less-than-ideal human intent, I'm afraid we citizens will continue to be subject to the laws of the land, and our poor, misunderstood teenagers will be kept under home rule.
Fortunately, anarchy is a terrible substitute for law, order and even a flawed peace of mind.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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