Atlas, Shrugging

I was called for jury duty this week and selected as a juror on a battery case.  In my state of Florida, battery is defined as “actually and intentionally touching or striking another person against the will of the other.”  Ever had someone you barely know come up to you and give you a hug, and you’re thinking a simple “hello” would have suited you better?  That’s battery in Florida.

As a juror, I was thinking that lots of people commit battery every day, without any intent to harm anyone.  But any unwanted touching is battery.

Driving in to work today, jury duty behind me, I passed by a police car, mostly hidden, waiting to snare unsuspecting traffic violators.  Part of my commute takes me over a four-lane divided highway with a 45 mph speed limit.  Everybody goes faster, though, and I keep my speed about 55 on that road.  In 22 years making the commute I’ve only picked up two speeding tickets.  But every day I’m violating the law, and I’d be blocking traffic if I actually drove the speed limit.

If the police really wanted people to drive the speed limit, they would park their marked cars in conspicuous places as a signal to slow down or run the risk of a ticket.  Instead they hide, sometimes in unmarked cars, not to deter traffic violations but to stop people who mean no more harm, and are no more of a threat, than those people who give you the unwanted hugs.

Then I ran across this article about government-required stamps that must be placed on illegal drugs.  About 20 states have such laws.  They don’t expect sellers of illegal drugs to buy the stamps; it just means that when they are caught that’s one more law they violated.

These are just three examples of the way that laws are written so that everybody violates laws every day.  They reminded me of a passage in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged where Dr. Ferris from the State Science Institute is talking to Hank Reardon about his illegal sales of his metal.  Ferris says,

“Did you really think we wanted those laws to be observed?  We want them broken. … We’re after power and we mean it. … There’s no way to rule innocent men.  The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals.  Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them.  One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

It’s not fiction.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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