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Complex Societies Need Simple Laws


"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 "incomprehensible." They are. They are also "uncountable." Congress has created so many criminal offenses 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 happened in Britain, a country even more rule-bound than America. A man had an epileptic seizure and fell into a shallow pond. Rescue workers might have saved him, but they wouldn't enter the 3-foot-deep pond. Why? Because "safety" rules passed after rescuers drowned in a river now prohibited "emergency workers" from entering water above their ankles. Only 30 minutes later, when rescue workers with "stage 2 training" arrived, did they enter the water, discover that the man was dead and carry him to the approved inflatable medical tent. Twenty other cops, firemen and "rescuers" stood next to the pond and watched.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, sometimes called the first libertarian thinker, said, "The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished.

... The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be." He complained that there were "laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox." What would he have thought of our world?

Big-government advocates will say that as society grows more complex, laws must multiply to keep up. The opposite is true. It is precisely because society is unfathomably complex that laws must be kept simple. No legislature can possibly prescribe rules for the complex network of uncountable transactions and acts of cooperation that take place every day. Not only is the knowledge that would be required to make such a regulatory regime work unavailable to the planners, it doesn't actually exist, because people don't know what they will want or do until they confront alternatives in the real world. Any attempt to manage a modern society is more like a bull in a darkened china shop than a finely tuned machine. No wonder the schemes of politicians go awry.

F.A. Hayek wisely said, "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design." Another Nobel laureate, James M. Buchanan, put it this way: "Economics is the art of putting parameters on our utopias."

Barack Obama and his ilk in both parties don't want parameters on their utopias. They think the world is subject to their manipulation. That idea was debunked years ago.

"With good men and strong governments everything was considered feasible," the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote. But with the advent of economics, "it was learned that ... there is something operative which power and force are unable to alter and to which they must adjust themselves if they hope to achieve success, in precisely the same way as they must taken into account the laws of nature."

I wish our politicians knew that. I wish they'd stop their presumptuous schemes.

We need to end the orgy of rule-making at once and embrace the simple rules that true liberals like America's founders envisioned.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="" <>></a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




15 Comments | Post Comment
I have been involved in a small business for many years. When we first set up, I came up with lists of procedures, but found out quickly that too many rules and procedures mean that none of them get followed.
Now I know that there are a whole horde of inspectors that could walk through my front door and shut me down for who knows what, sometimes conflicting regulations.
Comment: #1
Posted by: partsmom
Tue Mar 13, 2012 10:39 AM
3 Simple Rules for a Civil Society

Rule 1

No person may initiate force, threats of force, or fraud against any other person's self or property.

Rule 2

Force may be used in defense against those who violate Rule 1.

Rule 3

No exceptions shall exist for Rules 1 and 2.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Justin Hale
Wed Mar 14, 2012 1:15 PM
I like those rules alot
Comment: #3
Posted by: Brent
Wed Mar 14, 2012 5:57 PM
"The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable."
Frederick Bastiat
Comment: #4
Posted by: David
Wed Mar 14, 2012 6:44 PM
The lawmakers keep passing laws
For this and that, all of the time.
Let's put them all in jail, because
Their passing laws should be a crime.
And don't let the lawmakers out,
Until they've read each law there tiz.
That'll keep'em in jail no doubt,
In for life, out of our biz.
Lawmakers behind bars will be
Like taking the kids to the zoo,
To look at an extinct specie
Who hurt us, but no longer do.

There ought to be a law to make
All laws illegal for sane sake.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Ima Ryma
Thu Mar 15, 2012 1:01 AM
A K.I.S.S. Mentality would fix the problems we need candidates that run on that platform on a ticket that limits Government Interference in our personal liberties. We need common sense approaches to governing this country, states and local agencies. Dump the congress not the Constitution.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Harley3rd
Thu Mar 15, 2012 5:24 AM
A K.I.S.S. Mentality would fix the problems we need candidates that run on that platform on a ticket that limits Government Interference in our personal liberties. We need common sense approaches to governing this country, states and local agencies. Dump the congress not the Constitution.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Harley3rd
Thu Mar 15, 2012 5:25 AM
Could not agree with you more Mr. Hale just keep the laws simple stupid as they say. They created these make no sense laws to justify their existance in Washington. One thing I agreed with Governor Perry of Texas was Congress should be a part time job not full time because it creates nonsense like what has been occurring for years. God Bless America.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Jose Reyes
Thu Mar 15, 2012 7:28 AM
I also agree with Mr. Hale with one very important addition. No person or any entity (especially government) may initiate force, etc..
Thank you John Stossel for doing what you can to open people's eyes. I fear it is a lost cause but I also try to do what I can to try and wake people up in my own way.
Comment: #9
Posted by: Usedtobefree
Thu Mar 15, 2012 12:25 PM
Back to basics....In the UK, we come under Common Law, meaning there are only 3 laws that govern the common man, which Mr Hale has provided. Do not steal, cause harm either mentally emotionally or physically and do not commit fraud in your transactions. Everything else are statutes...which are NOT law. They have the force of law but ONLY with the Consent of the governed.
Unfortunately......most people seem to have forgotten Common Law.
Comment: #10
Posted by: meena seville
Fri Mar 16, 2012 5:17 AM
Re: Usedtobefree Since all "entities": government, corporations, unions, etc., are composed of people I decided on the basis of keeping it as simple as possible to just use "person(s)". A cop represents the government but he is also a person. Since Rule 3 prohibits any exceptions he can not violate Rule 1 even as part of his job.
Comment: #11
Posted by: Justin Hale
Fri Mar 16, 2012 1:15 PM
I love your articals and would like some input on AGENDA 21. We seem to have a battle on our hands in Houghton County Michigan with a Master Plan from our planning commission.
Comment: #12
Posted by: Tim
Sat Mar 17, 2012 7:14 AM
There is not a single second of the day that goes by that we (or I) am not regulated in some manner. I used to tell people that it was from the time I got up until I went to bed that I dealt non-stop with regulations and had to give consideration in everything I did as to whether I was in violation of some law. But, in actuality, it is 24 hours a day. There are hundreds of rules and regulations in place that tell me what I can and can't do every second of the day. It used to be I could depend on common sense to guide me through the day, in a moral sense or in a legal sense. Now there is little logic involved anymore in our regulatory world. I can only imagine all the ways I am breaking the rules simply because I don't know the rules exist or can't comply with them even if I did know.
If you think about it, when you combine property taxes with regulations that limit your private property rights (like wetland rules), in essence the land really belongs to the government ... there is no such thing as true private property ownership in much of the U.S. I have heard some of the stupidest explanations from so-called technical experts as to why it is justified to have certain land-use and environmental regulations in place. It becomes evident that most regulations are driven by special interests or individuals that think everything needs to be a certain way to make them feel good based on some isolated personal situation that occurred sometime in their life or because they have a concept of what the ideal world should be like for the masses. Only problem with a utopia is - each person's idea of a utopia is different. Therefore, there is no such thing as a utopia.
The thing that amazes me most is how we passively stand by while more and more regulations are put into place. The only thing I can figure is we truly are a bunch of idiots or we have reached the point where almost everyone has a job that is heavily dependent on satisfying certain regulations and we are afraid to fight for fear of losing our piece of the pie. I would gladly give up my piece of the pie and the entire pie, for that matter, if we could eliminate the vast majority of regulations.
The regulatory engine and the financial situation in this country truly are beyond the point of possibly being brought under control. It will take something very severe to create an environment where true change can take place. I am very sad about what America has become. The best I can hope for is that we create a situation where gridlock is severe and never-ending in all branches of the government. I guess I am willing to waste money by paying taxes to worthless politicians and bureaucrats to keep them forever battling with each other if that is the only way to keep them from spending time passing more worthless rules and regulations.
Comment: #13
Posted by: TL Ricw
Sun Mar 18, 2012 11:45 AM
The only real purpose of a bureaucracy is to grow. It doesn't matter whether the bureaucracy is in the private or public sector - its only purpose is to grow. Every page, every sentence, every word of legislation and regulation is fertilizer that enables bureaucrats to grow the bureaucracy.
Fortunately, the private sector has a pruning mechanism. Unfortunately, the public sector doesn't.
A major problem with public sector bureaucracies is the incentives bureaucrats have. They are punished for efficiency and problem solving - they lose funding and therefore status and power.
For example in the US as the end of a fiscal year approaches every government bureaucracy spends every remaining cent of funds so they will not get reduced funding the next year.
What would happen to the Drug Enforcement Agency if the drug problem were solved?
Why is there a Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 21st century and why have American Indians still not assimilated?
Why is American education poorer but vastly more expensive today than before the creation of the Department of Education?
What has the Department of Energy accomplished re energy independence?
The list goes on and on and on.
Comment: #14
Posted by: Yeti
Fri Apr 6, 2012 12:14 PM
After watching Aaron Russo's documentary "America: Freedom to Fascism," I thought I'd take a stab at finding the law that requires us to pay the "Income" tax. The income tax law is US Code 26, better known as the Income Tax law. I went to look at it and found that it is so long (nearly seven times as long as the Bible) that I doubt if I can find an English Language Expert who can interpret it for me even if he were a tax attorney because their stock answer is that USC 26 requires us to pay the income tax. Ask them for where explicitly within the morass of words is that spelled out and I'd get the same answer that thousands of others who've asked have gotten from the IRS, nothing. This nation has devolved from "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" Into "The land of the Enslaved and the Home of the Coward." Everybody involved in the IRS enforcement division of our government remind me of the NAZI's at Nuremberg. When confronted with the irrefutable evidence that they had murdered over six million Jews they answered that they were "Only Following Orders."
Comment: #15
Posted by: Will Mattison
Sun Feb 10, 2013 2:30 PM
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