In the Dark Ages, physicians believed that applying leeches to one’s skin would extract “bad blood” and cure a patient of his or her maladies. This practice persisted for a shockingly long time: well into the 18th century! How could such an unhealthy and dangerous behavior persist for so long?
One day, with similar incredulity, our descendents will ask how we, as a society, wrote civil laws with abandon. They will find the same two reasons we find when we analyze the past. First, a few patients did, in fact, get better. Second, people were afraid not to put on leeches. So how do leeches and laws intersect?
First, laws, like leeches, work like placebos in the short run. People generally felt better about themselves shortly after being “bled.” Similarly, the public generally feels better about itself after its coffers have been figuratively bled. When the temperance movements at the turn of the century brought alcoholism into the spotlight, society cried out for a law to do something. Prohibition did enjoy moderate success in the short term (before producing even more cases of alcoholism by the end of the 1920s). Perhaps it is the feeling of being temporarily faint or delusional. Soon enough, with the rush of blood back to the head, comes a pounding headache.
Second, people like to pass laws because of that satisfying “finally-someone-is-doing-something-about-something-dagnabbit” feeling. But the result is as murky as that feeling is nebulous. People liked to put on leeches because they feel they’re doing something, but, of course, you can’t create jobs by just breaking windows.
Laws should not be the first solution we turn to when confronting public problems. That a problem is serious (just as alcoholism was a serious problem in the early 20th century) does not necessitate a law to show its severity. There are other, better ways to go about solving collective problems: publicity campaigns, individual behavioral change, the private sector, better parenting, better education, and other social solutions.
You may be wondering: If the law does not directly affect us, what possible harm could there be in just another piece of legislation? Excessive lawmaking is, like leeching, more often than not, counterproductive. Like leeches drain one’s lifeblood, legislative excess bleeds one’s livelihood. Simply put, wait until you see the bill. Writing laws costs money to pay legislators, to hire legal advisers, to pay law enforcement, and to cover the inevitable lawsuits that will ensue. These are merely the costs of a blank bill; they do not cover the specific funds that each bill calls for.
It’s important to stress that it does not have to be this way. We don’t have to look far away to see where few but good laws work well. The U.S. Constitution is notable for two things in particular: its tremendous success and its remarkable brevity. Over the course of 223 years, we have added just 17 amendments, and the Constitution still has fewer words than an applied math term paper. It’s a veritable legislative tweet! Meanwhile, I use my copy of the California Constitution as an ottoman.
Obviously, this does not apply to all social ills that receive national attention. Certain public problems, like robbery, will always need laws. I simply propose some alternative solutions, just as some doctor 700 hundred years ago surely suggested that perhaps a simple bath would be a better idea than covering the patient in bloodsucking leeches. For example, the green movement has achieved tremendous success through publicity campaigns and the proliferation of private alternative energy companies. Most importantly, this success is not fleeting. The success of the green movement is as sustainable as the forms of energy it encourages because it has worked itself into the private sector.
We are a country profoundly infatuated with laws since our very inception. When reading the Declaration of Independence, one is struck by the remarkably legalistic terms used in listing the Founders’ grievances. America is commonly referred to as the fulfillment of John Locke’s theory of government grounded in the rule of law. With our country’s love of laws in mind, the abuse of legislation becomes apparent. Simply put, we are accustomed to treating every public pressure with a legal knee jerk. This is a problem because it makes a mockery of our legal system. If this trend of legal leeching continues, we will find ourselves overprescribed and still under the weather.
Sarah R. Siskind ’14 is a government concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.