As tempting as it is to echo the sentiments of generations past when we talk about the United States, the truth is that the country changes so much so quickly that we need to drop all those old sayings to really sum up what America is all about today. This nation may have been founded on certain principles, and may have even held tight to those principles for some time; but power corrupts, and the dual temptation of power and profit turned out to be impossible to resist in this case. Even if it changed the entire thrust of what America was once all about, succumbing to these temptations was simply too appealing to our politicians as a whole.
America was once the land of the free. People living here at the time were so proud of that distinction they adopted the phrase and passed it down. Hell, it’s even in our theme song. Now people still say it, even if folks in other countries boast more freedoms than us while our government institutes laws that remove more of our liberties with each passing year. This seems to be another case of perception being at odds with reality, and we know how hard it is to change beliefs once we let them firm up. Even if we have to admit that our national anthem is starting to sound like propaganda when you hold it up next to the behavior of today’s government, we need to look at the truth behind the myth.
Can we call it the land of the free, if we have more written restrictions against citizen behavior than any other country ever? Can freedom really be enforced with more laws? If so, maybe we are on the right track. Nearly everyone knows we have more laws on record than any other country in history, but somehow this is not the main topic of discussion when we talk about how we can make this country better. Instead more rules get suggested, and often make it into the books. Rather than supplant old laws that don’t make sense anymore, they just get added to them.
Any good social historian will tell you that every government has to make a choice and stand for something. The first issue at hand when it comes to establishing who you are as a territory is whether you want to collectively choose freedom or security. Freedom is good, of course; people should be allowed to do as they please, right? Well, yes and no. Most of us agree that we should end that phrase with ‘as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else’ or something like that. Yet as soon as we qualify the phrase, we contradict it. That’s really just another way to say you want both freedom and security, in a world where you just can’t have both.
Alright, so we need to find some sort of balance. If total freedom is complete chaos, and total security is absolute control…how do we find someplace in the middle we can all agree on?
Well, we can’t. Not really. We’ve all heard of the old laws that do get removed from the books. They sound super silly to us, in the modern age. Yet even if they have been removed from most books, they remain in others. How many times have you heard of a state law decreeing that a man and woman are considered married after they have spent one night together? Or a city law forbidding spitting in the street? Or a state law preventing people from being drunk in public?
Many of those laws have been rolled back in a lot of places, but all of the above still exist somewhere in these United States. Meanwhile, new ones are springing up all the time, and they don’t exactly have the same thrust behind them that the old laws did. The people who started this country really just wanted folks to be decent to each other, as far as we can tell by reading their laws. A woman’s sexual reputation was a different thing in those times, we all know it’s only polite to act sober when you’re drunk in public, and very few people think spitting in the street isn’t gross.
What happens is that society moves forward in certain ways, and the rules have to be changed along with those movements. Before the stock market existed, insider trading wasn’t something we needed laws against; when it was mostly men in the workplace, sexual harassment was not really an issue. As reality morphs, laws have to be created to define its new boundaries; that is perfectly understandable. But the laws a society makes says a lot about the overall character of that society, and the number of rules a nation puts in the books must say something about the people writing the laws.
Whether this implies we are the most enlightened nation ever or the one most apt to flounder in its own excessive wordiness, I don’t know for sure. The fact remains that we have more laws on the books than any county in history, which puts the average citizen in a similar boat to the one they row down to the voting booth. Just as we can’t be surprised that voters don’t read what they vote on, we also can’t be too shocked to find out some people are criminals without even knowing it. With so many laws on the books, even a legal expert can’t keep track of all of them. How is the common person who just wants to be a good law abiding citizen supposed to find time to memorize all those laws, in between work and family and reading the items they vote on?
I always love to offer a solution, especially when it happens to strike me as both funny and ridiculously impractical. In the spirit of such fun, let me put forth an idea to help everyone with this.
You know how some traffic laws differ from state to state, and there will sometimes be a series of signs telling you what those differences are just as you cross over into another state? How about we make every state put all their laws on signs, and line them up along the side of each freeway or highway that takes travelers across the border? That way they have to make them concise, and short enough to put on a road sign; also, it might cause the people making the laws to think twice about the rules they are making for other people to live by. There’s only so much space on the side of the road, after all.
Having a lot of laws is something that can only be done incrementally, the way it happened here in America; but the spirit of those laws create their own incremental effect on the citizens of this country. Although there may have been a time when we expected our laws to be clear and our politicians to be honest, that time has long since passed. Nearly everyone knows certain things to be true, and most of us tend to act as though they have always been the way they are today.
Ask anyone in this country why every president in recent history has not been impeached for going back on their campaign promises, and you might get a slightly different answer from each of them. What all those answers boil down to, in the end, is that we expect our leaders to promise one thing and deliver quite another; and most Americans are quick to admit…
Maybe they always were, maybe they always will be. We’ll talk about it more next week, in a post by that name. Then we’ll get away from politics for awhile, I promise.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,