In case you have ever worried that Parliament does not do very much, take a look at the volume of legislation that afflicts us these days. If you wonder why your best friend requires a copy of your passport before he will sit and drink a glass of wine with you, or why your partner will not let you eat your dinner until you have identified yourself with your postcode, the first line of your address and your date of birth, look to legislation. Legislation was once the reluctant last choice for dealing with any issue, now the phrase “there ought to be a law against…” has been taken to heart by our leaders.
I remember reading that someone had worked out that in the ten years from 1997 to 2007, there were more new laws introduced by Parliament than had been introduced in the entire century from 1897 to 1997. Perhaps that does depend on what you mean by a “new law”, but the point is quite clear. In 1997, my books of tax legislation took up less than half the shelf space than they do today.
And what is the purpose of all these new rules? Government will doubtless seek to show improvements. Yet in that time, tax avoidance grew from a pleasant pastime to an industry. Terrorism reached new depths of depravity the likes of which we had never seen before. Government has found itself powerless, again and again, to remove people in our midst we know to be associates of, if not exponents of terror. For all this legislation, have things improved?
The short answer, is, quite obviously, no. This is because of the most simple but true laws of nature: the ability of people to circumvent laws is exponentially related to the number of laws in existence. Put in a slightly different way, the more complicated you make legislation, the worse the legislation is. Legislation is an unsuitable mechanism for controlling all but the most basic patterns of behaviour. How successful was American Prohibition, for example? Or for that matter, current anti-drug laws?
Yet we are tied to legislation unrealistically. We have seen, only in the current Parliament, our Government legislate to try to control its own behaviour. How ridiculous is that, since it need only legislate further to allow itself to change its mind? Legislation is so poor a method of control, that there are many who think that (some) religions were invented by men to deal with that control. I wasn’t around at the time, so I cannot really conclude, but we can certainly see how religion is having a far more powerful effect on behaviour in the Middle East than English, International or Local Laws.
Conviction will always win over legislation. People will always try to circumvent legislation, just as Parliament itself attempted to do by allegedly turning a blind eye to MP’s expenses. It is for that reason, I expect, that government wishes to try to turn many of the things they want us to do into moral or ethical issues, rather than legislative ones. Conviction over legislation.