Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Disproportionate and special interest lawmaking

With government spokespeople complaining all over the place about the police investigating cash for honours, it seems fairly clear that when they were introducing over 3000 new crimes during the past ten years, these crimes weren't meant to apply to themselves, the good guys. Don't the police realise that these laws were supposed to help them tackle the bad guys and if some innocent people get caught up in the process then that was the price of public safety, as long as none of the elite are amongst those caught in the net, of course.

In any case, the 'trust me because I'm a good guy who sincerely believes he is doing the right thing' approach to government is completely unsustainable when it involves unquestioning faith in a ruling elite engaged in perennially and systematically ignoring mass quantities of evidence contrary to their worldview. Clifford's essay, 'The Ethics of Belief' comes back to mind here.

I don't know whether the New Labour insiders who have been arrested in the cash for honours investigation or whether the New Labour friends about be prosecuted in the BAe-Saudi arms affair, before the government terminated the case, have engaged in criminal behaviour. I do believe that a government that sails to power on the promise of being "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime", introduces new sweeping criminal justice legislation on average every two months for ten years and then implies that they themselves are outside of the reach of such laws, blast a huge hole in their own ship way below the credibility line. The rather unfortunate fall out for those like Lord Levy who have been subject to investigation is that if they are not subsequently prosecuted due to lack of evidence or incontrovertable evidence of innocence, it will be too easy to believe that some other member of the elite protected them - the no smoke without fire syndrome - and Levy and others might not get a chance to clear their names.

An approach to criminal justice legislation which involves a constant legislating reflex response to the latest headlines, based on a belief about what the police or security services want and only what they want, is also unsustainable. It is indicative of governing through laws written by and for powerful special interest groups, both within and outwith government. (The police and security services should have all the resources and tools they need to do the difficult job they have to do but with the appropriate checks and balances in place to ensure we don't creep down the road of a police state. (You only have to look at today's headlines about the complicity of the RUC in loyalist murders to see how it can so easily get out of control). Even the head of MI6 said last week that the government had gone too far in implying the BAe-Saudi case had been shut down at his request.)

Larry Lessig makes pretty much the same point in the closing chapter of the second edition of Code, in the context of copyright legislation:

"In the last ten years Congress has passed exactly one bill to deal with the problem of spam - the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. OVer the same period, Congress has passed 24 laws affecting copyright...

This pattern is not an accident. In a political world that is dominated as ours is, lawmaking happens when special interests benefit. It doesn't happen when special interests oppose. And in these two instances, the lack of regulation and the plethora of regulation is explained by this point precisely. There have been 24 bills about copyright because rock stars lobby for them. There has been one bill about spam because the direct mailers (and many large companies) testified against them."

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