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posted by martyb on Tuesday June 03 2014, @04:56AM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the ignorance-of-the-law-is-no-excuse dept. has an interesting story on Measuring the Complexity of the Law:

Our technological systems are becoming more complicated. In some cases, even so complicated that the experts involved in their construction don't fully understand them any more ( ). But too often, when we think about technology, we focus on certain kinds of systems: computers and large machines. But there are many other anthropic systems that might be considered technologies. And this includes our laws. Essentially, our legal codes are complicated technologies, growing and becoming more interconnected over time.

But how complicated are our laws? In a working paper titled "Measuring the Complexity of the Law: The United States Code" ( abstract at: ), Daniel Katz and Michael Bommarito of Michigan State University recently set out to measure exactly that. They attempted to quantitatively measure the complexity of the United States Code, using what is roughly a metric for how hard it is to understand it. The U.S. Code is essentially the collection of all federal laws, and consists of 51 Titles, or sections, that each deal with different topics. For example, Title 11 is related to bankruptcy, Title 26 is our tax code, and Title 39 deals with our postal service. Since there are many sections with different topics and styles, comparing the complexity of different Titles is a natural means of examining differential legal complexity. But how to do so?

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  • (Score: 2) by frojack on Tuesday June 03 2014, @05:20AM

    by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday June 03 2014, @05:20AM (#50533) Journal

    One wonders if they ran their own paper through their own analysis algorithms.

    If they were on a mission to show the CFRs as mere pikers of complexity they pretty much hit their target.

    No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
  • (Score: 1) by kstox on Tuesday June 03 2014, @06:09AM

    by kstox (2066) on Tuesday June 03 2014, @06:09AM (#50540)

    The link to is broken.

  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by bradley13 on Tuesday June 03 2014, @09:01AM

    by bradley13 (3053) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday June 03 2014, @09:01AM (#50566) Homepage Journal

    It was a revolutionary idea, when Rome posted the laws that all must obey. The idea that the law must be objective, that everyone was equal before the law, that laws were not arbitrary but knowable by the average citizen.

    Where are we today? The laws have become so complex that no one can possibly be aware of them all. The law is unknowable and, worse, has again become arbitrary. The government can't prove that you committed a crime? They can still get you with asset forfeiture, or just pile on so many chargesthat your only chance is to plea bargain, or just drive you into bankruptcy with legal costs.

    Here's a proposal: return to the concept of objective and knowable laws. Require the government to publish all laws that affect an individual, written in high school English (or whatever the language of your country is). The total size must be something that an average citizen can realistically read - say, the size of a fat novel (around 250,000 words). Want to pass a new law? The law must fit, or else something else must be removed.

    Everyone is somebody else's weirdo.
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @09:26AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @09:26AM (#50572)

      > The government can't prove that you committed a crime? [...]

      It's much funnier than that. There are secret courts with secret hearings and secret rulings. I think neither USSR had those.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @09:27AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @09:27AM (#50573)

      I think something like this would strike a good balance. One extreme is where we have like 10 short laws and everybody knows them but they're vague. The other extreme is there's an endless complex code and the judge is a machine but loopholes become golden.

    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by geb on Tuesday June 03 2014, @11:47AM

      by geb (529) on Tuesday June 03 2014, @11:47AM (#50595)

      The problem of complex law isn't that individual laws are hoplessly complex (though I'm sure somebody could point to some examples of bad ones). Instead the problem is interaction between several centuries of crap, forming a patchwork that is entirely made up of hasty repairs, political expediency, and stuff that might have made sense at the time but clearly no longer does.

      I'm a UK resident, and not a great fan of our government, but I will admit there's something we get right. Periodically our laws come under review to see whether they are still relevant, whether they need to be abolished or added to, and whether they could be restated in an easier to understand form. That last point is important. Quite often this means scrapping half a dozen individual legal acts and replacing them with a single act that says exactly the same thing. The result is no change in the law from an enforcement point of view, but a radical improvement in readability.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @04:46PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @04:46PM (#50687)

        I recently set up a fish tank in my home with native fish and flora. The laws in my U.S. state are not only complex but communicated in a contradictory way. In the fishing license manual it says it is absolutely totally illegal to transport aquatic plants. This is to prevent invasive species from tagging along on people's recreational boats as they go from lake to lake. On the Department of Natural Resources website it gives a long explanation of how plants are property of the government and you need a permit before you do anything to them and gives a long list of requirements for aquatic plant control. When I looked up the actual statues in the states website it clearly says it is totally acceptable to harvest plants for personal use, with the exception of one rare plant and wild rice commercially. So, is it illegal, requires a permit, or ok for me to do? Also, I can't take any water from any body of water and transport it, this is to prevent the spread of disease. I have to bring my own water, collect my plant specimen, and then put it in the water I brought, but the plant never gets completely dry, so there will always be a small amount of water transported with the plant, if I dry the plant out, it will die and be useless for my purposes. How on earth could I legally collect a plant for my aquarium? That's just the plants, I would need to consult a goddamn lawyer if I wanted to keep any native fish besides fathead minnows.

        It seems impossible for the average citizen to know the law even if they try to grok it.

    • (Score: 1) by khakipuce on Tuesday June 03 2014, @11:50AM

      by khakipuce (233) on Tuesday June 03 2014, @11:50AM (#50596)

      Standards and expectations change. Once upon a time being run over by a car was an accident, it was no ones fault, just one of those unfortunate things. But then people started to feel that some drivers were driving dangerously and that the driver was at fault and should be prosecuted. We already had laws for manslaughter and murder but these required certain standards of proof and responsibility etc. and it was unlikely that bringing a case on those grounds would succeed so we needed a new law to cover this.

      Which law would you remove from the list to allow this one in?

      • (Score: 4, Insightful) by VLM on Tuesday June 03 2014, @01:19PM

        by VLM (445) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday June 03 2014, @01:19PM (#50615)

        "we needed a new law to cover this."

        No we already have laws covering that. We need new laws to advertise our tough on crime stance, or enforce peculiar social engineering goals or fads for gain. Basically the electorate is too stupid to want fair and simple laws.

        For example kill a guy while driving because you're tired, eh, whatever no problem he shouldn't have been bicycling anyway just blame that victim. Unless you're tired because you're drunk, then throw the book at the driver. Or kill a guy while driving because you're changing the radio station on your annoying and hard to use and dangerous touch screen, eh, who cares. Kill them the same way while changing the music on your phone and you're "texting" and should be executed, the only difference is you'll only be punished if the screen is not permanently mounted on the car. We have a lot of stupid laws because we have a lot of stupid people who like the laws that way.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @05:54PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @05:54PM (#50716)

          It doesn't make sense for a legislature to punish one style of tech over another unless perhaps there were auto lobbiests protecting their own interests by using legal responsibility to motivate new buyers to fork over the extra thousand for that horrible to use infotainment package.

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by WillAdams on Tuesday June 03 2014, @11:53AM

      by WillAdams (1424) on Tuesday June 03 2014, @11:53AM (#50598)


      Before a law can be passed, it should be read, by the submitting legislator, in its entirety, w/o taking a break in the presence of everyone voting on it.

      Every term of a branch of should be begun by their reading aloud the entire corpus of laws which affects their work --- they can take turns for this --- no passing new laws until they've read everything which is currently in effect.

      • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @01:28PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @01:28PM (#50618)

        This is an actual argument I received against this concept: "Nothing will ever get done!" I say that if reading a bill in its entirety for every single bill submitted and every time an earmark is tacked on results in "nothing getting done," that's getting something much more important done: not passing a fucking law that has no business being passed in the first place.

        • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @08:50PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @08:50PM (#50780)

          Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

                                  -The Talking Heads

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @11:09PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 03 2014, @11:09PM (#50829)

      That will also fail - you are creating a compression prize like Hutter, you'll just get new language and unparseable law (an aggressive version of what we have today).

      Why not use a Jury to test law? Assemble juries specifically to test law. If 9 out of 10 jurers came to the same conclusion on a set of positive and negative test cases as the sample judges then it's a win. Even better if they have to do it from their recollection of the body of law. What will that encourage? Readability, recallability, citizenship education, etc.

      The problem with law is that it has become it's own discipline and fails it's own tests. Ie if ignorance of the law isn't an execuse then why do Patent Lawyers exist? Or Employment Lawyers? Or Contract Lawyers?

      What should be interesting out of the complexity review will be the root cause analysis. The day a computer spits out a summary that concludes complexity in law is a function of corruption in the governance processes, is the last day computers will be allowed near a law book.