Monday, February 09, 2009

Rules are made to be followed -- or should be

If all the stoplights in Milwaukee turned red at one time, our Irish history professor told us, and if the traffic signals stayed red for a period of days, people would starve to death in their cars.

That's the German heritage of Milwaukee, our professor told us. This was over 30 years ago. I'm sure it was an exaggeration then, but a telling one; I don't know if Milwaukee residents would recognize any truth in it today, even as caricature. I rather doubt it.

I doubt it because, in my experience at least, rule following is out of fashion. Stop signs -- even red lights -- are routinely ignored by impatient motorists... unless the intersection is monitored by a camera that issues tickets.

The problem, as I see it, is that our society all too often now passes laws it has neither the means nor the intention to enforce. Take cell phone laws, for instance. We have a law in Chicago that makes it an offense to drive and talk on one's cell phone at the same time, unless the cell phone is used in a hands-free mode. Day after day though, in my neighborhood and in the Loop, I see car after car, driver after driver, one hand clamped on the wheel, the other pressing a cell phone to their ear. Some of these are police cars.

On the rare occasion that someone is pulled over for using a cell phone while driving, the ticketed person will complain of selective enforcement. And he or she will be correct.

When I was in college, the legal drinking age in Illinois was 19 for beer and wine, 21 for hard liquor. The legal age was 18 in neighboring Wisconsin. A lot of high school kids and college freshmen from Illinois died on U.S. 12 or 14 coming back from Lake Geneva, or on U.S. 41 coming back from Kenosha. While it was not for this reason alone, the federal government eventually stepped in -- and, in a classic display of recent federal contempt for federalism, mandated that all states raise their drinking ages to 21. The federal government didn't require compliance with this diktat, of course; the government merely threatened to not dispense federal highway funds to any state that chose not to comply. A similar threat prompted the states to 'voluntarily' reduce Interstate speed limits to 55.

I was still quite close to 21 when these alcohol laws were changing and I therefore paid more attention than most. I remember in particular one state legislator saying in debate that raising the legal age to 21 would not cut off alcohol in colleges -- we know the college kids will continue to drink, he said, *nudge*, *nudge*, *wink*, *wink* -- but it will keep the stuff out of the high schools. In other words, the law was passed with no intent -- at least on the part of many -- to enforce it as written. I think we can all agree that the 55 mile per hour speed limit was also routinely ignored.

Passing laws that we will not enforce -- or can not enforce -- creates contempt for all laws. It's been going on for at least a generation now. Thus, we have motorists breezing through red lights. Chatting on their cell phones continually while driving. Paying their taxes only when appointed to the Obama cabinet.

My wife, a teacher, sees a growing contempt for the law in her junior high classes. When we were kids, cheating was rare. Yes, I once let a cheerleader copy off me in sophomore English -- and she still dated the quarterback instead of me. (Crime doesn't pay. Or it didn't.) But kids didn't cheat when I was a kid, not as a rule. My wife says kids cheat all the time now. It's the rare kid who doesn't cheat -- and this in a Catholic school. They expect to get away with it, too, and are astounded when she calls them on it.

Now perhaps I'm ignorant of history. Perhaps there have always been draconian laws placed on the books, passed with no intention of enforcement. Perhaps this isn't a recent phenomenon at all. If so, give me examples. (And, yes, I've heard of Prohibition, thank you. It bred contempt for the law and was repealed, in part for that reason.)

But I've always thought of Prohibition as the exception. Now, I think we're passing laws at all levels of society that we have no hope or intent of enforcing. If I'm right, this has to stop or respect for the law will continue in a downward spiral to anarchy. I'm not suggesting we all become Germanic and slavishly adhere to any law our masters impose upon us; rather, I'm suggesting that we prune our legal codes ruthlessly, throwing out laws that we don't want to enforce or can not enforce -- but enforcing what remains with vigor. It'll never happen, of course. But it should.


Linda said...

Hear! Hear! Very well said and all too true I'm afraid.

We have the same cell phone laws here in Connecticut but I guess that most people don't feel that it applies to them as I see people constantly on their cell phones while driving and paying no attention to anything around them. The police officers are supposedly exempt from the law as long as they are using their phones for law enforcement business. Yeah ... right ... I guess ordering lunch might be considered law enforcement business ...

Sometimes I think that a law is passed simply to 'shut up' the people who have been clamoring for such-and-such a law to be passed and yet there is never any intention to enforce whatever that particular law might be. If that's the case then they might just as well not pass the law to begin with but I'm sure no one would ever admit to such a thing anyway.

Our society is on a major downhill slide and it's sad that most people can't see it as it just seems that it "never applies to them".

Good post and good points!

Misty Dawn said...

I have continuingly been amazed at the clients I have encountered who are guilty of a crime and required to serve a jail sentence, yet will call the office and say "You need to change the start of my sentence - I had a vacation planned during that time." or "My sister is getting married." or whatever! HELLO!!! You broke the law, yet you expect everyone to bend over backwards for you and do things the way YOU want??? What warped thinking!