Which laws don't we enforce and why?

Tim Wu, a smart and funny law prof, has a new series up on Slate that he calls his magnum opus -- a series of articles examining which laws America doesn't enforce, and why:
This series explores the black spots in American law: areas in which our laws are routinely and regularly broken and where the law enforcement response is ... nothing. These are the areas where, for one reason or another, we've decided to tolerate lawbreaking and let a law--duly enacted and still on the books--lay fallow or near dead.

Why are there dead zones in U.S. law? The answer goes beyond the simple expense of enforcement but betrays a deeper, underlying logic. Tolerated lawbreaking is almost always a response to a political failure--the inability of our political institutions to adapt to social change or reach a rational compromise that reflects the interests of the nation and all concerned parties. That's why the American statutes are full of laws that no one wants to see fully enforced--or even enforced at all.

Link (Thanks, Tim!)


  1. Nice read, I can’t even imagine what my response would be to a Judge if they asked me if I felt bad after being arrested for porn.

    “Um…this was illegal at one point?”

  2. I follow all the rules, am constantly scared to death of being arrested for trumped up or false charges and try to stay home as much as possible. That’s the real future of humanity.

  3. Law (& society) couldn’t function if law was enforced to the letter all the time.

    It’d be like working-to-rule, one of the smartest nonstrike union tactics.

    these are great essays, also because they suggest a lot about why and when things ARE enforced (which, surprise surprise, doesn’t always have to do with things that cause the greatest harm, and often more to do with reinforcement of social hierarchies).

    so much for “the rule of law” as a positive good.

  4. Of course, there are also the laws that don’t apply to wealthy multinationals..

    Imagine I had sold people CDs with a hidden software package that intentionally interfered with the normal operation of their computer. I’m sure the FBI would come knocking at my door for breaking the computer crime laws. But did anyone at Sony BMG, who did exactly that, get arrested? Nope.

  5. Laws are selectively enforced to control the populace, and prevent civil disobedience. Once everyone is comfortable routinely breaking the law, then otherwise law-abiding citizens will find that simple things, like insisting on their Constitutional rights, can be taken away from them by selectively enforcing laws (that they may not have even known existed) only against the “squeaky wheels”. Read your Ayn Rand, folks.

  6. This is a great series. The side effect of the porn industry being unregulated due to obscenity being technically illegal is an interesting point.

  7. I wish they’d enforce the anti-bribery laws that corporate lobbyists routinely flout with complete impunity. At the very least, they should be required to match the dollar amount of bribes in contributions directly targeted to reducing the principal of the national debt.

  8. Michael has it. I don’t have the Atlas Shrugged passage handy (although my guess is a lot of us have seen it posted again and again in Slashdot comment sections) but it encapsulates the real problem with selectively-enforced laws: They give enforcers carte-blanche to enforce their own agendas.

    Who cares if your participation in an anti-war rally was completely legal if you broke an obscure state law about hand-carried signs near state buildings? You’re fined or in jail either way.

    Dead laws need to be buried. Their corpses simply invite abuse.

  9. At some point I became convinced Ayn Rand won’t be happy until we are all robots. Can someone tell me my impression of her was wrong?

  10. Halifax (in Nova Scotia, Canada) went through an exercise maybe 5 years ago where they combed through all of the municipal laws and bylaws that had ever been passed, and discarded the ones that were no longer relevant, or were unenforced (or unlikely to need enforcing?). For instance, the city had laws banning the grazing of livestock on the Commons, a well-used public green area smack in the middle of downtown. There were also quaint laws against ringing doorbells after dinner.

    I thought it was a great idea, but I have no idea whether the exercise ended up being worthwhile. If any Haligonians are out there, I’d love to find out.

  11. does Halifax still have those weird signs telling you not to wear scented perfume or deodorant? they were one of my best memories from there.

  12. Halifax is still trying to be scent-free, and succeeding to some extent. Unfortunately, a lot of the businesses and institutions that advertise their scent-free policy still use (nasty) scented cleaning products in their bathrooms!

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