Should Laws Be Temporary? How We Can Reform America's Legal System

The Atlantic recently ran a piece by Philip Howard entitled It's Time to Clean House, in which Howard argues that it is time for some spring cleaning of the federal legal code. Howard suggests sunset provisions on all new laws and the creation of special commissions to go through the legal code and remove outdated laws.

The 2010 Federal Register was 81,405 pages long, filled with dry legal code on every page.  Violating just one those mandates on any of those pages could end up landing you in prison for a very long time.  

This creates a very perverse and fearful situation for American citizens. Attorney Harvey Silvergate recently authored the book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, in which he claims the average person commits three felonies a day while not even realizing it. No human on this planet knows every rule and regulation put for by the federal state – and this fact should give you pause.

These days, even the most innocuous behavior can land you in prison for decades. Here are just a few examples of behavior that can land you in prison: shingling your own home, selling raw milk, feeding homeless people, dancing in public, and selling “Free Hugs” buttons. John Stossel covers a lot of these in his recent show entitled Illegal Everything; in which he displays what 80,000 pages of legal code actually looks like – and remember, that doesn’t include the millions of state and county laws.

I personally don’t see special commissions or sunset rules changing anything. The only way a serious reformation can take place is if people collectively decide that the role of government should be fundamentally different than it is today.  

Originally the federal state was created to do a very limited number of specific tasks, as codified under Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution, which lists 18 specific things the federal government is supposed to manage, while the Tenth Amendment remanded all other regulation to the states.  Clearly the federal state has gone well beyond the original tasks it was supposed to be limited to, regardless of what the Supreme Court has to say on the matter. (On average, the Supreme Court only strikes down 3 out of every 5000 laws passed – obviously they cannot be relied upon to defend the Constitution).

If you want real reform, then the solution is not going line-by-line through millions of regulations, but rather dissolving the federal state entirely. The individual states were supposed to be places of innovation and competition, with each state competing to have the best regulations between themselves. When the federal state seizes control of individual state powers, it removes all competition from the equation. Why can’t people who love Obamacare enact that law in a state where most people support it, while allowing other states the freedom not to adopt it? Why not let individual states decide what laws are best for themselves? State legislatures are much easier to control by the public than federal bureaucracies. Just about anyone can run for a state congressional seat, but good luck trying to win a federal election – that’s something that only well connected people can pull off.

Additionally, it’s obviously much easier for people to move from state to state than it is from country to country. A few treaties between the states could unify their defenses and maintain a smooth flow of commerce between themselves; an entire federal bureaucracy is not necessary to accomplish this.

The federal government has grown way too big for its britches. It engages in endless wars, endless cronyism, endless bailouts, endless money printing, and endless rulemaking that has destroyed a once vibrant and free society. It is an entirely unnecessary and redundant institution given that individual states have their own legislatures and national guards.

The time has come for legal competition. The time has come for an end to all the unjust wars that have savaged our society’s economy. The time has come to end the now unnecessary federal state.

Photo Credit: Ulises Jorge

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Michael Suede

Michael Suede is an Austrian economist and author who holds a business degree from the University of Wisconsin. Michael's articles have appeared in numerous economics publications. Michael is also one of the few economists who is well versed in the economics of voluntary crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin. Michael is a veteran of the US Navy and an advocate of voluntarism. Michael authorizes the use of all his content under Public Domain copyright. Any organization or individual may freely republish, edit, modify and distribute Michael's works without restrictions.

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