The Law of Rules

This is a repost of an essay from 2004.
 

In contemporary political discourse, we often discuss the Rule of Law, especially in our postmodern culture where bad behavior is often justified (and excused) by situation, upbringing, or historical injustice. But no one ever talks about the Law of Rules.

Today in the office I reviewed one of Medicare’s bulletins, clarifying (at least in intent, if not in practice) their regulations in some arcane area of reimbursement for surgical procedures. Few outside of the health care field have any idea of the complexity of regulations governing medicine. When last I checked several years ago, Medicare had about 150,000 pages of regulations in the Federal Register, approximately 3 times of the volume of the IRS tax code. American medicine is more highly regulated than Soviet state industry ever was, and getting more so by the day.

Without launching into a diatribe on the evils of government-funded and regulated medicine (perhaps another time), it strikes me that the explosive growth of rules, laws, and regulations in society as a whole is a reflection of an underlying shift in our culture, values, and individual moral integrity.

There are two ways to implement good behavior in individuals and society: from within or from without. Human beings are morally flawed (a surprisingly controversial statement in our current, “values neutral” culture), and therefore in order to maintain a peaceful, stable, functioning society, laws – and the means to enforce them – are required. Laws exist not for the good in man, but rather for the evil, as a restraint. If man were morally perfect, no laws would be needed. Yet law cannot create morality, but serves only to protect the good from the evil. The more moral goodness there is in a society–restraint from harming one’s neighbor, acts of service, honesty, integrity — the fewer laws are needed and the better those laws already in place function. As individuals (and consequently the society they constitute) change from being other-oriented and self-restrained to self-centered and self-seeking, the more law-breaking occurs, the greater the enforcement required, and the more laws are required to manage and restrict human behavior. Hence the Law of Rules: Rules beget more rules.

We humans are intelligent, resourceful beings who are ever looking for new ways to achieve the goals and desires important to us. If our intent is to deceive, steal, or harm, there is almost always a way around existing law to accomplish our aims. The result of this is twofold: harsher enforcement of existing laws and more laws to cover the loopholes discovered by us innovative creatures, as society seeks to protect itself. Hence the result of a deterioration in individual moral restraint is both more laws and harsher penalties. The logical end result of such a progression is something resembling totalitarianism: there are laws about everything, and brutal punishment for their violation.

We often hear totalitarian regimes such as China or the former Soviet Union boast of their low crime rates and the safety of their streets. And Islamic countries and cultures often proclaim their inherently higher moral status over us libertines in the West, cutting off the hands of robbers and the like. But while it is possible in large measure to restrict behavior through law and retribution, such measures do not make a society or its individuals moral as a consequence. In fact, the effect is quite the opposite. Laws intended to restrict evil behavior often have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting those intent on good. So, for example, the law designed to discourage fraud in Medicare by the few (a worthy goal) results in less time for patient care, restriction of access to care by the needy, and the exodus of good health care providers to other professions to escape their crushing burden — all bad outcomes affecting far more people than the few who would game the system. One need only look at the extreme effects of Islamic teaching on some (not all) of its adherents, with the wanton murdering of women, children, unbelievers–and even other Muslims–to conclude that constrictive law-abiding society does not promote moral goodness as a consequence.

What’s the answer? Other than a fundamental reversal in individual moral virtue–an inside-out change–I fear there are few good alternatives. But I am not gloom-and-doom about the prospects for such change–I have seen and know of too many who have undergone such a change to be pessimistic, and am convinced of the existence of a God capable of implementing such change.