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We must obey and enforce laws or repeal them

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Government has learned the power of having many laws that are constantly broken but seldom enforced. There are several advantages.

First, it makes the legislative body look busy and productive. Second, it gives the enforcement arm (the executive) near carte blanch power. Third, it makes life easier for the judiciary, because they don’t have to think too deeply if the law spells things out.

An example is the speed limit. I have heard from the horse’s mouth that law enforcement officers are routinely instructed that they don’t have to (read, may not) ticket anyone going less than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. This is partly a product of the fact that courts tend to throw out cases if the speed is even close to ambiguous.

But due to this norm, judges throw out additional cases based on the idea that anybody pulled over for less than 10 over was being picked on. So, the de facto speed limit is 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. Everybody knows it, so a sizeable fraction of the driving public takes it as a right.

If you are riding a bicycle on the sidewalk in Watertown as if you owned the sidewalk, they can cite you for violating the ordinance against riding a bicycle on the sidewalk even though what the community really wants is just for pedestrians to have right of way over bicycles.

This system is convenient for the officers, who are typically men and women of good will simply trying to keep order in communities. But it is one of those easy paths that is bad for us.

Through these systems of laws that are universally violated and optionally enforced, we all conspire to create a system of rule by individuals rather than by laws, similar to a medieval system in which royalty, nobles and knights had personal authority rather than authority stemming from law. By supporting this kind of system, we give up our rights even if we don’t know we are doing it. Far from acts of rebellion, speeding and gliding through stop signs are like the behavior of a dog baring its belly in submission.

We should obey and enforce the laws we have and repeal the laws we don’t obey or enforce. And we should not make new laws “just to have them on the books.” That is the path to a dystopia in which everything is illegal and Judge Dredd can do whatever he wants, or in which the true laws are the unwritten ones handed down by crime lords and enforced by the whim of bullies.

Robert South

Watertown

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