Only Some Laws Add Value

Sometimes there are easily discovered facts that lead one to question the common orthodoxy.

For example.

  • The Russian intelligence agency estimated that in late 2014, there were 70,000 to 100,000 ISIS fighters in the Middle East.  The American estimate was 31,500.
  • The Chicago Crime Commission report on gangs in 2012, estimated that there were 150,000 gang members in Chicago.
  • Chicago has the toughest gun possession laws in the United States.
  • The gun murder rate in Chicago is about four times higher than the national average.

So how does that challenge the common orthodoxy?  In this case, it challenges the idea that the United States is a nation of laws.  It does have many laws, but most are for drama and effect, not for enforcement.  Maybe to allow officials to use them as they wish rather than evenhandedly.  Selective enforcement is a powerful political advantage.

Chicago is just an example.  New Orleans is far worse for gun violence.  The point is that the government passes laws but does much less to make them effective.  Gun ownership by the regular citizens is Chicago is lower than in other major cities, but gun possession by criminals is unaffected by the stringent laws.

Some might argue things would be worse without the laws.  That is, of course, delusional.  Criminals are by and large, not fools.  If they expected a regular citizen to be carrying a 9mm Beretta they might be more careful in who they attacked.  Crimes against the defenseless are easier.  The same argument goes for people who attack elderly women wearing fur coats.  Few animal rights people attack Hell’s Angels members wearing leather.

The results are a matter of political and social will.  Passing laws does not automatically create the Nirvana that the proponents of the law hope.  Enforcement of the laws would have effect, but that is much more difficult.

Laws that govern the behaviour of people who do not need the governance are useless and cowardly.  They make the politicians appear to be helpful, but at the same time they diminish respect for the law and encourage miscreants.

A simple law, well-enforced, benefits everyone.  Any law weakly enforced benefits only the criminals.

It is not just Chicago.  Look at the many federal agencies.  The SEC for example.  There is small diminishment in stock frauds because laws exist.  Transgressors lose no sleep.  Money still goes to wrong-doers.  Most financial crimes already fall under other laws. No one needs the SEC to prosecute theft.

The problem, in my view, is that many in politics and in the bureaucracy enjoy their position but have less love for their duties.  Position without duty is, like unearned self-esteem, harmful.

People are losing respect for the government and that is a bad thing.  We need some government; we just don’t need the governmental regulation equivalent of Potemkin villages.

Simple and direct laws work.  Pretty (and petty) regulation and ideologically driven rules do not.


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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