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Ridiculous laws are symptom of America's overcriminalization problem

Ridiculous laws are symptom of America's overcriminalization problem
© istock/Hill illustration

The internet is packed full of lists of silly laws in the United States. Marveling at what went through the minds of the elected officials who enacted such ridiculous laws can provide some amusement. There’s even a Twitter account that posts a new silly federal crime every day. While the comic relief is appreciated, these ridiculous laws actually are a symptom of a serious problem in the United States: overcriminalization.

It’s true that these silly laws are rarely used. But the problem is that there are so many — at the federal, state and local levels — that we can’t possibly know them all. On the other side of that coin, it’s also impossible to enforce all these laws. Instead, law enforcement officials must choose which ones are important and which are not. The result is that they pick the laws Americans really must follow, because they’re the ones deciding which laws really matter. No wonder many people feel that laws are carried out in inconsistent and biased ways. To some extent, they have to be, because there are so many laws on the books.

One possible solution to this problem is to elect politicians to clean up the criminal code and get rid of needless and antiquated laws. But even that would not address the whole problem. Federal, state and local regulations — rules created by unelected government bureaucrats — carry the same force of law and can turn you into a criminal if you violate any one of them. And they can be as equally silly as statutes enacted by legislators.

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For example, Florida regulations created in 1957 and still on the books prohibit anyone from eating a frog that was used in a frog-jumping contest. In Indiana, it is unlawful to fish with your bare hands. Regulations in Michigan require barbershops to be free of dust and rental boats to be of “sturdy construction and without holes.” And if you want to advertise a legal bingo game, make sure to include your state-issued bingo license number in the advertisement — with the same font size as the other text in the ad.

These ridiculous rules may seem harmless. They are either needless (boats without holes), impossible to enforce (bare-handed fishing) or intentionally ignored (every barbershop has a little bit of dust). Indeed, actively enforcing these rules would cost significant resources and provide no added benefit to public health and safety, so it makes sense that law enforcement sweeps them under the rug. 

But this doesn’t change the fact that if we violate these rules, we could be prosecuted as criminals. No matter how antiquated or ridiculous, they still carry the full force of the law. By letting so many of these sit around, just waiting to be used against us, we increase the power of law enforcement, which has lots of options to charge people with legal and regulatory violations. Of course, we can rely on the good people in law enforcement to resist this temptation, but the risk is real that these rules could be used for nefarious purposes.

There’s another side effect from America’s bout of overcriminalization: It severely reduces citizens’ respect for the law. When laws are routinely ignored or not consistently enforced, they lose their gravitas. This teaches citizens that the law itself does not matter; what matters is what the state decides to enforce — and that is determined by who is in office. So, instead of a country run by laws, we slowly become a country run by politicians and the bureaucrats they hire.  

Overcriminalization also impairs and distorts technological innovation. Innovation often comes from inventors, tinkerers and dreamers toying around, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. With so many active rules and laws in place, though, innovators run the risk of becoming criminals if they try something new. Our overcriminalized society requires you to first get permission from the government to try something new — that is, if you want to avoid risking a criminal charge. That discourages innovators and raises the costs of technological improvements.  

Fixing our overcriminalization problem will not be easy. Federal and state lawmakers have developed a habit over the past several decades of criminalizing behavior as one of their go-to ideas for “fixing” societal problems. And they’ve empowered bureaucrats to do the same through the regulatory code. We need policymakers to stop creating needless crimes; at the same time, they should start a thorough review of regulations. It would require a long, slow process, but it is the only remedy to rebuild a respect for the law and a fairer system of law enforcement.  

Michael Van Beek is director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich.