The legal highway may lead by pointing towards the direction of justice, but the road is definitely littered with outdated laws and statutes that serve no use other than to confound and confuse. For example, there’s a jurisdiction in Wisconsin where it’s illegal to eat ice cream on Sundays. In North Dakota, meanwhile, there’s a regulation against serving pretzels with beer. And in a certain city in Ohio, women are prohibited from patent leather shoes. Of course, the actual enforcement of these ridiculous codes happens rarely–if ever–but it still begs the question: Why? Why keep them on the books?
Sure, maybe when these laws were codified there was a legitimate community concern being addressed. But times have changed–indoor plumbing has since been perfected, and electricity can be found in every home. Shouldn’t something be done about this legal detritus? In this Bold Interview, James Copland of the Manhattan Institute suggests that we need to get busy repealing these old outdated laws.
Outdated laws have real consequences for society. First of all, they create a bloated and confusing collection of governing statutes. And confusion is the enemy of the law-abiding citizen, for how can someone obey the law of the land when it’s impossible to pin down what’s okay and what’s not?
It creates uncertainty for all parties, and leads to abuse by the few who have knowledge of fine print that gives them the power to harm others.
It isn’t all that difficult to imagine a situation where for example, two parties are at odds. Perhaps they are politicians involved in a closely contested race. And politician A makes the unfortunate mistake of making a funny face at a dog. Politician B demands action. It sounds absurd, but it is entirely possible.
More often, these old and pointless laws are applied against the poor and disempowered. It is rare for those of us in the professional classes to face scrutiny for sitting too long on a park bench or jaywalking. It isn’t at all rare for people who are poor or homeless to be issued legal violations for exactly the same behavior.
Many outdated laws hamper and confuse businesses. And often in cities or states, these laws are used to punish or even destroy businesses that the political class does not support. It can be personal, they may be protecting a friend, or it can be political, perhaps the powers-that-be just don’t like the idea of “that type” of business in their back yard.
Copland points out that some states, counties, and cities are taking the need to trim their law codes seriously. They are creating official positions within the government to review the law code and recommend removal of old and redundant laws. There are also legislative movements to clean up the law codes all across the country. Congress could do a lot to help grow business by getting rid of useless laws.
Like anything else, from a garden hedge to household clutter, the law works best when it is clean, clear, and relevant. The ambiguity that arises from old and outmoded laws can lead to harm, inefficiency, and injustice. It creates uncertainty for all parties and leads to abuse by the few who have knowledge of fine print that gives them the power to harm others.
Clearly, much could be gained if legislatures all across the United States devoted as much attention to pruning and improving their current legal codes, as they do to writing new legislation. This may not be as simple as the much-ballyhooed 2 for 1 legislation put forward by Trump, which had the potential to be treated like a gimmick.
What is actually called for, the bold action that would have a real impact throughout society, is a thorough well-considered assessment of legal codes at every level. And for citizens and their representatives to demand the removal of outdated laws, the consolidation or redundant laws, and the clarification of poorly written laws that leave citizens and business vulnerable. It would be one of the most profound and useful acts to ever come out of government.