The purpose of laws

Most laws are intended to make our lives easier and safer

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty. - John Adams

Most of us, as Americans, have mixed feelings about authority.

Our nation, after all, was formed and literally defined by its rebellion and revolution against an established king – and a kingdom that, at the time, was the reigning economic, military and naval super-power.

We, like few, if any, nations in history had the opportunity to define and develop laws that, at least in intent, were objective and fair “without any regard to persons, commands that which is good and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low” as John Adams put it.

Like laundry, this is work that is never done.

Laws have different categories, purposes and intents.

Federal laws, for example, are designed with the society’s best interests in mind. They are designed to protect the safety, health and welfare of the public. Federal laws set rules and procedures for activities that involve interpersonal interaction that cross state or regional boundaries. This includes transportation, energy and interstate trade.

At the state and local levels, laws concern issues within state or county borders. Food safety and sanitation and building codes are two areas of state-regulated law. States also have the right to enforce their own driving laws.

In the most general terms, laws exist to protect and maintain the health, safety and well-being of the public. They are enacted to punish behavior that threatens others in society, and they give victims some degree of protection.

In short, any law should have a specific purpose.

Over time, changes in cultural values, priorities or technology may make rules or laws obsolete, irrelevant or even absurd.

John Adams insisted that  the USA should be a “government of laws, and not of men”.

Laws, by definition, must be larger, more enduring, and certainly  more unbiased than any individual, ideology or faction.

Some laws, in their context, seem (or must have seemed) reasonable.

The machinations of political bodies, whether local or national, can be sobering, if not mind-numbing.

A law is developed, proposed, voted on, passed, enacted and, one would hope, enforced.

But, as with virtually every human act, one sometimes has to wonder about the intent and motivation of some laws.

At their best, laws contribute to our well-being and safety. Photo: Morf Morford

At their best, laws contribute to our well-being and safety. Photo: Morf Morford

Consider just a few of these laws currently on the books in California;

Homeowners in San Diego who have Christmas lights on their houses past February 2 may be subject to a fine of up to $250.

It is illegal to pour salt on a highway in Hermosa Beach.

In Blythe, you are only permitted to wear cowboy boots if you own at least two cows.

In Downey, you cannot wash your vehicle in the street.

Between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., it is illegal to walk a camel down Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs.

Flying a kite higher than 10 feet off the ground is prohibited in Walnut.

It is not legal to curse on a mini golf course in Long Beach.

It is illegal to drive in reverse in Glendale.

In Prunedale, two bathtubs cannot be installed in the same house.

Women may not wear high heels while in Carmel city limits.

It is against the law to have more than two cats or dogs in San Jose.

In San Francisco, any person classified as “ugly” may not legally walk down any street. (This one’s been repealed. Learn more about “ugly laws” here.)

One has to wonder what situation emerged to rally the passions of a local community to encode legally restricted behavior in every arena from pets to bathtubs.

I can’t imagine how the safety, health and welfare of the public is protected by any of these laws.

Usually “government over-reach” is considered to be an act regarding the actions of a federal body, perhaps in the realm of regulations or taxes.

My experience is the opposite – it is fairly rare that some dictum from some bland office two thousand miles away filters back to me and impacts my life, my budget or my actions in any, even indirect, way.

It is the local offices and entities that impact my life – and that of my neighbors – far more directly. And that is as it should be.

I would far rather have individuals with names that I know, who I may meet at public events or even casual, unofficial activities, who know my neighborhood, my community – its challenges and triumphs, even its weather and, to some degree, even with their hands at work at the levers of power, know in a practical way, the needs and character of those they have been elected to represent.

They, above all, in spite of any office they may hold,  are first of all, and after they leave office, one of us.

They drive our streets, shop in our local grocery stores and attend concerts or movies and their children attend schools alongside many of us.

Some are even our neighbors, friends or relatives. It is not likely that they (most of them at least) will forget where they are from because they are still here.

They may not always make decisions some of us like or agree with, but they are here to see – and live with – the consequences of their decisions.

I have no problem with the array of building codes, speed limits and various other laws that sometimes impede on my existence and freedom especially when I know that those who pass such guidelines have discussed and considered them – and like the rest of us, live under them.

The ultimate safeguard against tyranny, incompetence or even corruption, is for constituents and representatives at every level to stand eye-to-eye.

Killing one tyrant only makes way for worse, unless the people have sense, spirit and honesty enough to establish and support a constitution guarded at all points against the tyranny of the one, the few, and the many. - John Adams

There are two tyrants in human life who domineer in all nations, in ….Chinese, in Greeks and Romans, in Britons and Gauls, as well as in our simple, youthful, and beloved United States of America. These two tyrants are fashion and party.         - John Adams