Is Ignorance of the Law Still Not an Excuse?

The Federal Register at some point in 2003 hit a record 75,606 pages. There are now several hundred years of common law in effect. There were 187,017 patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2003 alone. It is no longer even possible for one person to know the entirety of the law pertaining to his every day activities, and it’s increasingly hard for even lawyers to know if a given action is legal or illegal in one narrow area of the law.

Is it even possible for a person to live a life without breaking a law, regulation, or violating some contract or other? Could even notorious shut-in Emily Dickinson not be accused of some zoning violation or state or federal environmental protection rule-breaking? Has anyone born since 1950 not broken a law or violated a regulation?

There has always been a certain amount of contempt for the law. The most notorious in the U.S. are alcohol regulations and taxes, which date back to the Boston Tea Party and Whiskey Rebellion. But it would be interesting to know if contempt for the law is increasing. Certainly I get the sense that people divide the law into technical and moral: some laws, such as murder or rape, engender moral opprobrium if you violate them. Many other laws, and I fear an increasing number of them, carry no moral outrage even in the strictest schoolmarms. Does anyone, even police, really care if most people routinely go 5 miles over the speed limit at the very least?

These are not new questions, by any means. But given the explosion of regulation everywhere and litigation here in the U.S., it’s worth raising again: the law increasingly resembles an excuse to seek protection money from average citizens in order to be left alone. Pay regulators fines, pay lawyers fees, pay “donations” to legislators, and, increasingly, pay outright bribes to everybody.

When it becomes an acceptable cost of business to pay outright bribes throughout the U.S., not just in the Northeast, then our standard of living may start to follow our legal system in resembling a third world country.

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