Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ignorance is No Laughing Matter

What do you do if you get cited for violating a law that you find silly? You could fight it, but the absurdity of a law is generally not a good defense. Unless of course, you happen to be the Mayor of Houston.

According to the Chronicle an ordinance on the books requires bicycle owners to register their ride with the city. Mayor White, who is an avid bike rider, was unaware of the law and had not registered his bike. City Council is scheduled to vote to repeal the ordinance.

Admittedly it's a silly law, not to mention an improper function of government. But according to the Chronicle, since 2006 Houston police officers have written 206 citations for violating the ordinance. While the City has not prosecuted these heinous criminals, individuals were subjected to all of the hassles associated with such citations. Everyone apparently, except the Mayor.

The Chronicle article does not mention how this archaic law came to be rediscovered, or who is behind the move to repeal it. But it makes one wonder what other silly laws are on the books and when they might be used against political opponents. The City has already demonstrated a propensity to this very thing, which I write about in Selective Enforcement. The City has used a law from 1947 to stop the Ashby High Rise, a law which has rarely been enforced.

As I wrote in Here a Rule, There a Rule, Everywhere a Rule:
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.)

The Mayor is the Chief Executive of the City of Houston. It is his job to enforce the City's laws, and yet he does not know all of those laws. How is the average citizen to know? Yet, we are often told that ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating the law. Apparently, the average citizen must be omniscient.

Some may simply laugh this off. After all, the City will soon repeal the law and the law hasn't been rigorously enforced. No harm, no foul, they may think. But that is not the point, and it ignores the underlying principle-- there are laws on the books that are absurd, that grant government improper powers, and can be selectively applied. Which means, you could be arrested and charged with violating some unknown, archaic law simply because someone at City Hall doesn't like what you write on a blog.

Some may think that this would only happen to trouble makers who try to incite debate and rancor. Try telling that to Joe the Plumber, who simply asked a question and then was subjected to an inquisition. Try telling that to Barbara West, who had the audacity to do her job and ask tough questions, only to have her husband subjected to media scrutiny. Simply minding your own business and doing your job might piss off the wrong person.

The problem isn't silly laws, or unscrupulous people in positions of power (though these don't help). The problem is that government has too much power. Government can legislate on virtually any issue, no matter how mundane. Even the most honest and virtuous person cannot govern with integrity in such a situation.

Repealing silly laws is a start, but who knows how many silly laws are on the books? More importantly, any law that infringes on the rights of individuals should be repealed. We might find the bicycle registration law amusing, but violating the rights of individuals is no laughing matter.

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