Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The virtue of simple laws

One of the weirder criticisms I've heard of the print media is that newspapers write at a 6th-grade reading level. This is absolutely true, but I've never understood why anyone would have a problem with it - newspaper articles are accessible to most readers, as opposed to the crawling style of a textbook.

American legislation, however, seem to be written at a 20th-grade reading level. In addition to jargon, triple-negatives and run-on sentences, the bills themselves can be thousands of pages long. Here's a typical excerpt from last year's notorious 2,000-page health care bill:

(d) Preference- In awarding grants and contracts under this section, the Secretary shall give preference to entities that have a demonstrated record of the following:
      `(1) Addressing, or partnering with an entity with experience addressing, the cultural and linguistic competency needs of the population to be served through the grant or contract.
      `(2) Addressing health disparities.
      `(3) Placing health professionals in regions experiencing significant changes in the cultural and linguistic demographics of populations, including communities along the United States-Mexico border.
      `(4) Carrying out activities described in subsection (b) with respect to more than one health profession discipline, specialty, or subspecialty.
    `(e) Consultation- The Secretary shall carry out this section in consultation with the heads of appropriate health agencies and offices in the Department of Health and Human Services, including the Office of Minority Health.
    `(f) Definition- In this section, the term `health disparities' has the meaning given to the term in section 3171.
The full text is available here. Regardless of the merits and flaws of the bill, the actual text is daunting. It is unreasonable to expect a citizen to read it, along with almost any legislation passed.

Keep that in mind next time you hear the mantra "ignorance of the law is no excuse." When the official rules of a society are as complex, numerous and dynamic as the ones we live under, its reasonable to expect people to break some simply because they didn't know.

In opposition to that mindset, George Mason University's Don Boudreaux argues the Hayekian view that there is a difference between laws and legislation. Laws are universal rules that people discover, such as bans on murder, theft and arson, while legislation is something people decide upon, such as bans on inside trading, gambling and immigration.

Boudreaux argues that while ignorance of the law is no excuse, ignorance of legislation is a great excuse for breaking it. Should we expect Americans to head to city hall each week to check for new ordinances so they don't accidentally break one? What about state and federal laws; those change all the time too.

So what can be done about it?

Earlier this week Boudreaux posted a Wall Street Journal letter proposing a law requiring legislators to sign a statement saying that they have read any bill they vote to approve.

"Since 2004, candidates for public office are required by law to state that they have personally seen and approved any campaign ad. I think it would be reasonable—and truly should garner full bipartisan support—to demand a law which simply requires our legislators to read the laws that they pass.

"Suppose a "yes" vote also requires a signed statement, before the vote, that says, "I have personally read this law, in its entirety, and approve its content." Could any simpler idea have more profound impact in reversing congressional dysfunction and rescuing Congress from its dreadful approval ratings?"

Well that would do a couple of things if passed. It would slow down congress, which is good or bad depending on one's politics. It would improve the quality of laws passed.

But more importantly, it would give legislators an incentive to draft legible bills. Bills would end up shorter and readable by the general public.

And at the same time, it would destroy jobs in the legal field. There would be less call for lawyers, paralegals and such if the legislation was just a little bit easier to interpret.

That's a feature, not a bug.

As I've said before, destroying jobs is progress. Imagine if instead of making legislation easier to read, we decided to make it harder, and Latin replaced English as the language of American law. Now all laws are written entirely in Latin.

Law firms would be forced to hire Latin scholars to translate for the legal team. There would be some law and Latin experts, but you would expect a lot of two-man teams to do the job of one paralegal. This sounds really nice to window breakers, but the rest of us can see the price of legal services would jump and society would be made worse off.

But in a way, we already have laws written in another language - legalese - and some of it is actual Latin.With laws and legislation written instead in a legible form, ordinary people would be able to perform some of their own legal work, and the bar to get a job in the legal industry would be lowered.

Both of these changes would reduce legal prices and free resources up for other industries. The legal profession would shrink, but society as a whole would benefit because people could spend their money on more things they want, instead of legal fees.


  1. Boudreaux's solution addresses the symptom rather than the disease. The language is deliberately obscure because vague laws put more power in the hands of the politicians. This is not a new phenomenon either; the Antitrust laws of the early 1900's are vague enough that almost any action taken by a business can be labeled "collusion" or "intent to monopolize".

    Vagueness in language causes a general fear among the governed that their actions will be criminal. And this is the ultimate intent of such law - to make us beg permission of our philosopher-kings before we do a damn thing.

    The real solution involves a massive cultural shift back towards "a government of laws, not men". We need leaders who can articulate that view, persuade people they are right (which really isn't that hard), ridicule these 1000+ page bills, and work to eliminate them one by one. But I don't see anyone stepping up.

  2. Congress is full of lawyers, not journalists. Simplicity never suits (no pun intended) their ends.