21 October 2008

Too Many Laws

I was wondering how many federal laws are on the books, so I Googled the topic, and find that nobody seems to know. The official site for the United States Code doesn't even let you ask that question. Ditto for the Code of Federal Regulations. The former contains the body of permanent US Federal laws, and the latter contains the body of permanent US Federal regulations issued by various agencies of the Executive branch of government. There must be a lot, and I doubt that it would make interesting reading.

I wondered about this because I was riding BART recently and noticed a sign over a bench stating that "FEDERAL LAW REQUIRES THIS SEAT TO BE GIVEN TO HANDICAPPED PERSONS." It's a perfectly reasonable and humane piece of legislation. But BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit, which does not extend beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. The entire system is contained within a few counties of the State of California. Couldn't it have been a State law that requires handicapped persons be given access to that bench? Or better yet, couldn't people simply observe common civility if simply reminded, as in "Please give this seat to handicapped persons?"

My point is that we have too many laws, and too many of them are federal laws. And then there is federal spending. The quantity of it is not as important as its coming in an awful lot of very small chunks, the so-called "earmarks" that make the annual body of Federal appropriations bills exceed the length of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

What we have is a federal government that is trying to do too much, to rule and spend at too fine a level of detail. Our government must pay attention to ten million things, and so can't pay attention to anything for long, even if it is important. And since the most important things can be painful to deal with, some of them don't get any attention at all.

Now if you're a business executive and find yourself similarly overwhelmed, you fix it by hiring good subordinates and delegating responsibility to them. To some extent the President and Congress have done that by creating Federal Agencies to make regulations for them, and Congress has built a large Congressional staff to do its real business. But those have only enabled the retention of too much detail at the Federal level: the Agencies have grown and proliferated and gotten into everybody's knickers, and Congress has become a clearinghouse for influence peddling.

Fortunately, there exists another level of government that can lift this burden from them - the States. And States can be relieved of the need to manage excess detail by the Counties and Cities.

At least that was what I was taught in Civics class, back the previous century. Maybe they don't teach Civics anymore.

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