Monday, September 01, 2014

An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, by Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)

This is a random book listening exercise from  The book mentioned seems to be an argument for reform of the penal system.  I haven't gotten too far into it, but one quote already jumps out at me:

"If the power of interpreting laws be an evil, obscurity in them must be another, as the former is the consequence of the latter.  This evil will be still greater if the laws be written in a language unknown to the people; who, being ignorant of the consequences of their own actions, become necessarily dependent on a few, who are interpreters of the laws, which, instead of being public and general, are thus rendered private and particular.  What must we think of mankind when we reflect, that such is the established custom of the greatest part of our polished and enlightened Europe?  Crimes will be less frequent in proportion as the code of laws is more universally read and understood; for there is no doubt but that the eloquence of the passions is greatly assisted by the ignorance and uncertainty of punishments."

I presume that he is speaking of a time when all the legal codes were written in Latin, but none of the common people of Europe were familiar with the language.  Thus, the population would be utterly dependent on Latin trained lawyers to interact with the courts.  The situation today is no doubt much worse, since the legalese is still a foreign language and we now have thousands of times more regulations to comply with than 18th century Italians.  The last notion strikes me as being utterly naive:  Would crimes really be less frequent if the laws were better known?  Or would the law reader get mugged while he was reading the laws?  The anarchist is happy to know what the laws are so that he can violate them, while the lawyer merrily enriches himself by ignoring the laws that others are obliged to follow given the uncertainties of punishment.

As for me, my impression is that there are so many laws regulating my behavior that I am probably committing some sort of atrocity every time I breathe in or out in a manner that doesn't comply with some obscure government directive.


Rummuser said...

Welcome to the club of those who are for ever committing some offence or the other because of some ancient statute on the books,

Looney said...

Yes, except that in our case it isn't the ancient laws, but rather the newest!