Ignorance of the Law Is a Perfectly Good Excuse


On a recent trip to Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center I saw a display on the Supreme Court. Part of the exhibit consisted of a stack of books piled 40 feet high. The idea, it seemed to me, was to awe the museum visitor to show how this branch of government is needed to interpret constitutional law, establish and analyze precedent, and opine on common law. Well, I got a different impression altogether.

I realized that due to the sheer number of federal, state and local laws, virtually everyone is a criminal in some form or another. Who really keeps track of the new laws? How many people read the laws coming out of Washington or your own state? How about city ordinances? Not even career politicians keep track of this mess.

Years ago, I used to videotape council meetings for a local cable channel. At first, I would find it amusing that even the council needed help to get things done, if only to keep themselves legal and consistent. They would vote on issues but required lawyers to ensure that every decision was coherent. That is, that every new vote would not imply overriding a previous ordinance unless that one was first repealed or amended. After a while, however, I started to become jaded and cynical. It became clear that their objective was merely political. In their attempt to get the popular support of the majority, they voted in ways that would guarantee a political outcome rather than try to have some semblance of liberty and order.

Just imagine the above scenario augmented by one hundred, one thousand, or one million. By the time we get to the state and national level, the political game, now greatly removed from the population, shows its true colors. Power has replaced whatever principle was there originally. The ratio of politicians to population becomes ridiculous. Whereas at least at the city level one person could, with great effort, attempt to get a sense of what his constituents wanted, at the state and national level, where each person represents millions of people, there is no possibility of honesty. And yet this is what is called representative democracy. I call it non-representative fraud. Who in their right mind can think that the few hundred people in D.C. know what is best for 300 million people?

Standing in front of that clever display in Philadelphia made me think of the so-called purpose of government: to ensure the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness by establishing a predictable framework of property rights and respecting the freedom of association. None of this has happened. Why do we need so many laws? What about just "Theft of life and property shall be illegal"?

If nobody in this country knows the law, then how can everyone be expected to follow it? Ignorance of the law is a perfectly good excuse, particularly in a country that was founded on a "Republican Form of Government" where laws would be few, stable, and make sense to the average person. But if today we asked people on the street how many laws they were aware of, I bet most replies would be centered on theft and murder, and some traffic regulations. Other than that, I expect ignorance. To me, this is telling. It is telling because it means that people are, not surprisingly, interested mainly in their own affairs. They care about their homes, their family, their immediate neighbors and those they associate with. Thus, how would it be wrong to have laws that protect life and property only? Nothing else is needed.

Ultimately, politics are exposed for what they are: a game of balancing property violations against votes, all with the purpose of perpetuating power for the politician, his cronies, and the benefit of special interests. What a sick game this is. Can I opt out now?