05.07.18 | Land Of The Lawless

Who knew?: Title 40 of the U.S. Code makes it a federal offense to take your bicycle into the National Institute of Health building, not because any legislative body ever deliberated on that subject but because it's one of the wholesale regulations (this one by the DHS) automatically incorporated into that criminal statute.

And, remember, ignorance of the regulation (er, law) is no excuse. Estimates are that the average American now unknowingly commits three felonies a day. Some unwitting offenders have actually served significant time as Abner Schoenwetter knows. He spent six years in federal prison for, in part, unknowingly violating a (later-rescinded) foreign administrative regulation (which was automatically incorporated into the Lacy Act) by importing some Honduran lobsters in plastic bags rather than in the required cardboard box. So be sure to comb through the 61,950 pages detailing the 3,281 current regulations in the CFR before you even think about feeding a whale or collecting rainwater on your private property.

And just consider that overhang as you also realize not one major bank executive was held to account for any role in bringing down the entire financial system a decade ago. How quaint -- this notion that our country is under the rule of law and that nobody is above it. 

Our focus article on Member Monday (5/7) is Ralph Nader's Land Of The Lawless , how the very proliferation of laws actually fosters an environment of lawlessness. Complexity itself becomes a great enabler, opening the way to bloated enforcement agencies and a broadened opportunity for selective enforcement. Think about that in personal terms. You may become a lot less relaxed about your privacy loss in the internet age.

A climate of hyper-regulation has implications well outside the world of criminalization. Bureaucratic compliance may take on a life of its own, sometimes replacing common sense and even transcending a law's original intent. 

It may, in addition, create a mindset in which legal form takes precedence over substance. Please indulge me and refrain from rolling your eyes as I walk down memory lane with one example of "financial engineering," to which I had a front-row seat almost forty years ago (attached below as "Form Over Substance").

- Steve Smith.