Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tacitus - Annals, Book 3.

"This suggests to me a fuller discussion of the origin of law and of the methods by which we have arrived at the present endless multiplicity and variety of our statutes. ... For subsequent enactments, though occasionally directed against evildoers for some crime, were oftener carried by violence amid class dissensions, with a view to obtain honours not as yet conceded, or to banish distinguished citizens or for other base ends. ... And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt. ... Many men's fortunes were ruined, and over all there hung a terror, till Tiberius, to provide a remedy, selected by lot five ex-consults, five ex-praetors, and five senators, by whom most of the legal knots were disentangled and some slight temporary relief afforded."

As the saying goes, those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Then there is the corollary, that those who learn their history from modern historians are doomed to repeat its mistakes with total confidence.

The above abbreviated discussion from Tacitus regarding classical Rome so much reminds me of today, where a multitude of computer generated laws preclude compliance without also relying on computers. Just a few days ago someone was telling me that businesses needed more regulation to keep them from sinning, as if we did not already have any such regulations. The statement "laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt" draws a correlation but says nothing about cause and effect. As laws become more numerous, however, men employ their minds to consider how to minimize the costs of compliance and maximize the benefits within the legal constraints, keeping in mind the probabilities that particular laws and regulations will actually be enforced along with the likelihood and magnitude of penalties. The end result is that there is simply no energy left over for honest people to consider doing honest business. Nor has it occurred to the legalists that such a person should exist; or that if he did exist, such an attitude towards doing business should be considered a virtue. And so we actively encourage a culture of corruption, while we simultaneously demand more and more laws to suppress that corruption.

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