I can state with a high degree of confidence that virtually every single person in the United States today is a criminal. In fact, I can say with absolute certainty that there is not a single functioning adult in America who could not be accused of breaking one law or another. (By functioning I mean individuals who carry on the normal activities of life.)
If you don't believe me, then visit David Hayes' blog (HT: Gus Van Horn). He recently visited the Library of Congress and took photographs and measurements of the United States Code, i.e., federal laws. The laws of the federal government occupy 304.5 inches of shelf space! That is more than 25 feet of laws, and according to David the "regulations are in small type, double column, printed on both sides of the page."
I submit that no human being could possibly be aware of each and every law contained within those volumes. Combined with similarly staggering state and local laws, it is impossible for anyone to know exactly what is legal.
To put this in perspective, my copy of Aristotle's Basic Writings is about 1.75 inches thick. I have read significant portions of this volume, but I can't imagine reading the entire thing. While the subject matter is of great interest to me, the writing can be difficult to follow at times. I simply have more important things to do with my time. I seriously doubt that many people have read its entirety.
The United States Code is the equivalent of 174 of Aristotle's Basic Writings. Who could possibly read, understand, and remember the entirety of the United States Code? I submit that it is intellectually impossible. Which means, it is impossible for an individual to know what actions are illegal.
The sheer number and breadth of laws controlling our lives is only a small part of the issue. Many, if not most, of these laws are subjective in nature. The meaning of many, if not most, of these laws are left to the interpretation of judges, juries, and bureaucrats. Today's interpretation may be ruled invalid tomorrow, which means, an action that is legal today may be declared illegal tomorrow.
As one simple example, consider land use regulations. In most communities, exceptions to the land use regulations are permitted through a process called variances. This means that some individuals will be allowed discretion to determine when the law applies and when it doesn't, and nobody can be certain until the final ruling.
John Adams once said that America is a nation of laws, not men. The meaning of this often stated, and little understood, phrase is that law should be objective. Its meaning should be easily understood by those subject to it, for how else will they know which actions are permitted and which are deemed illegal?
When an individual cannot know what is legal and what is not, even the most seemingly innocent activity can be illegal. And when the meaning of the law is left to the interpretation and discretion of others, each individual literally lives at the mercy of law enforcement and the judiciary. In such a culture, the lives of individuals are nothing more than disposable commodities, whose lives can be discarded at whim. In such a culture, individuals live, not by right, but by permission.
At a time when approval ratings for Congress and politicians are extremely low, the American public clamors for them to do something about the economy. Since government is an agent of force, “something” means more controls, regulations, and rules. Despite the attempts to vilify Wall Street, or Big Oil, or anyone else, those controls, regulations, and rules apply to individuals, not some faceless entity such as "Wall Street".
In principle, if rules can be enacted to control any individual, rules can be enacted to control all individuals. A nation of laws rejects this premise. A nation of laws rejects the idea that individuals should be controlled. A nation of laws recognizes and respects the right of each individual to live his life for himself, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.