Have you ever thought about the amount of law governing daily life in America? The United States Code contains about 47,000 pages of statutes. The Code of Federal Regulations includes another 160,000 pages of regulations. The numbers are staggering, and they don’t even take into account state and local law. We see the impact in our own lives when we file our taxes, apply for a mortgage, or try to figure out what expenses are allowed under our flexible spending accounts.
Modern government is organized on a false premise: that law can calibrate correct choices in advance. But it is beyond human capacity to foresee every possible circumstance or specify how to address or prevent every conceivable event.
Government is organized to fail because it leaves no room for humans in charge to make essential choices. The idea of law-as-instruction-manual doesn’t account for the unexpected—it cannot bend to the subtleties and vicissitudes of life. Dense law is too complex to be understood or internalized by the people who are supposed to be guided by it. Law that cannot be understood, and is disconnected from common sense notions of right and wrong, is not much different than tyranny, injecting fear and uncertainty into daily choices.
Dense law also makes government ineffective. With each page of legislation, our government becomes less nimble. The point of overhauling government isn’t to eviscerate its important goals, but to achieve them. A crowded, interdependent society requires government to provide common services and make common choices. It should protect the environment, expand access to healthcare, regulate product safety, and pursue other objectives. But we undermine these goals with rigid regulatory structures that run thousands of pages. Instead of modern, streamlined government, we end up with a version of central planning.
Law is a human institution. So is democracy. Law must set goals, and provide governing principles, but responsibility to achieve these goals must be left in the hands of humans. Accountability is our protection against mistake or abuse. Trying to protect in advance against failure only guarantees failure.