Confession of an average Joe

Dear Hannah,

The average man has no idea what's going on in this country, and I began to realize this during our special prosecutions.  I know this because I'm an average man.  Every year, it seems -- or maybe two or three times a year -- some "scandal" happens, a horde of cameramen gather around some unfortunate big-wig, a mountain of evidence is presented against him, and then most of the time he walks away free.  Most of the time I'm not aware exactly what the person's job is, or how exactly he failed, or who exactly he reports to, or what laws he has violated.  The effort required to understand all of this without a serious course in civics, one well beyond the comprehension of the average high-schooler, is herculean; and the tangled web of American politics becomes so labyrinthine that the process becomes inscrutable, and the average man has no choice but to resign the fate of his country to forces he has no chance of understanding.  If you're watching various news sources, both sides in any prosecution will oftentimes claim a victory.

I've asked several news junkies what exactly is going on, and what I found was that they were more interested in who was being prosecuted than the mechanics of the prosecution.  They pretend to understand, of course, and will usually throw out one or two tidbits about the thing; but what we find in the end is they have no time to follow the prosecutions adequately while following everything else in the news, and beyond this it's difficult to remember what happens in them.  To remember all the twists and turns of this circus would require the average follower to be both an idiot and a genius; a genius if your mind actually retains everything, and an idiot if you take all your time trying to retain it.

What I am capable of, like most people, is observation of the simple things.  For instance, notice that each of these scandals always happens around the executive branch, and neither the judicial nor the legislative.  It seems that the legislature can be a scandal but can't really have a scandal; and the judicial branch can change the laws, but aside from some floutable laws about bribery, nobody can tell them how not to change them.

The president and all his cronies on the other hand are picked to pieces.  The legislator can write you any law and the judge can reinterpret it or nix parts of it or scrap it, but the executive has to act on it.  And this nebulous idea, that the vague words we wrote on paper, sometimes two-hundred years ago, can mean something very specific to a country of three-hundred and thirty million non-geniuses, and that in a world of nearly unlimited possibilities and combinations of possibilities, the chief executive will know what to do and how to do it lawfully, is the reason we have our special prosecutions, and the reason none of us really understands them.  You'd have to know all the laws and all the actors and all their jobs in order to make sense of it.  And guess which three of these none of us knows?*

This being understood, the larger and more complex our federal government becomes the less it is understood; and the end result of a democracy becoming so bloated with laws and agencies that the average Joe can't understand it, is that the people will cease having control of the democracy.  They'll lose interest in things that are too far beyond them, resign their watch to a horde of professional bureaucrats and pundits, and these unelected bureaucrats, dealing with a system well beyond the common understanding, will manage the country with less and less a say by the people.  We'll hear about scandals and watch the trials.  Before the trials are even over, everyone turns their attention to a something better suited for children -- such as music videos by Childish Gambino, or the birth of a giraffe**.

Blackstone writes in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that Roman law was originally the laws of their kings, and then they added to these the twelve tables known as the Decemviri.  Then they added upon these the laws and statutes of the Senate, and then upon the statutes of the Senate added the edicts of the praetor, upon the edicts of the praetor the opinions of the lawyers, and upon the opinions of the lawyers the decrees of the emperors.  It was estimated that a caravan of camels could barely carry the laws of imperial Rome, and that Rome became too bloated to be understandable, and that this state of over-civilization brought imperial Rome to a state of something like anarchy***.  A government you can't understand is a government you can't control -- without absolute despotism.  And it took an emperor Justinian to streamline it, condense it, and whittle it down until the thing known as The Civil Law became so useful that its influence lasted in England up until the time of the American Revolution (whether it still has effect, in the UK's extremely traditional state, is beyond me). 

Ignoring our state and local legislatures, our congress passes anywhere from 300 to 800 new laws every session; and beyond this, the laws, full of technical jargon and unreadable "prose," can run anywhere into the thousands of pages.  This means new agencies, new rules, and new officials  -- which means new prosecutions.  These agencies will not be understood.  The prosecutions will not be understood.  The outcomes will breed suspicions of conspiracy, the only people who will profit will be our politicians and lawyers and pundits; and the American people, bogged down in things well beyond their understanding, will willingly yield their power to anyone who promises to make sense of it.  Except the way he will make sense of it is by defying it.  He'll have his cronies in all the crucial positions and stand in the way of the laws and dare us to do anything to stop him.  And we won't, because we won't understand the laws.

What, then, is the duty of the American citizen?  First it's to simplify as many of our agencies and laws as possible.  The second is to elect legislators who promise not to bloat them again; and if we catch them in the act of bloating them, to fire them as soon as possible.

Your father,

PS: There's an obvious question just begging to be asked here: why haven't I, a grown man, learned these things on my own?  In the age of information the only verdict that can be passed here is guilty, and I accept full responsibility for the state of my ignorance.  But what we have to realize is that in any highly-developed form of civilization, the branches of learning become too complex for every man to be a jack-of-all-trades, and the same kind of study required to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a scientist, applies to many other kinds of human business.  The mark of a great civilization is that most men become completely useless in the majority of professions.  The jack-of-all trades was a fine man for the frontier.  But today it's the specialist who benefits best, and the most of us better benefit from our specialists.  Hence the political studies major -- a man we need, but whose babblings few of us are interested in.

However this complexity shouldn't belong to the machinery of a republic, and one science we have yet to specialize in is the streamlining of government processes.  It should be the job of someone out there to think of ways to simplify the government, even if only for the public digestion, and if this specialization means anything, it is to make sure that at least in one area of life, nobody has to be a specialist.  If I can't find it in myself to spend all my free time learning about and keeping up with the government, almost nobody can; and I figure if I possess this "vice" -- this unwillingness to sacrifice every other aspect of my life to be as boring as a "political person" -- then I figure it would be nearly impossible to get someone interested in it who actually has a thriving career, or a large family, or house that needs fixing.

*Sometimes I send these ramblings to my editor, get shot down without explanation, and lose all confidence in the quality of my message.  My small sect of followers, and the fact that so few of them share my essays, tends to confirm this lack of self-confidence.  Thus this essay was written a while ago and sat upon for months.  But this week I ran across a book by a lawyer named James Duane, titled You Have the Right to Remain Innocent, in which he stated the following.
One recent investigation revealed that the United States Congress was passing a new criminal law once a week on average. It has been reported that the problem is so severe that even the Congressional Research Service is no longer able to keep count of the exact number of federal crimes! These laws are scattered throughout all the sections of the United States Code and include thousands of criminal statutes. Even if you somehow had the time to read every page of the federal laws written down in the United States Code—and even practicing lawyers no longer have the time to read all those laws—you still would not know all the different ways you could be prosecuted by the federal government. That’s because many of those statutes written by Congress reference the obscure provisions of many thousands of regulations that have been issued by every federal regulatory agency. It has been estimated that there are tens of thousands of these obscure regulations, any one of which could potentially subject you to criminal prosecution. And that is just the list of federal criminal statutes; the states have an even greater number of crimes on the books.  
As Justice Stephen Breyer of the United States Supreme Court correctly complained in 1998, “The complexity of modern federal criminal law, codified in several thousand sections of the United States Code and the virtually infinite variety of factual circumstances that might trigger an investigation into a possible violation of the law, make it difficult for anyone to know, in advance, just when a particular set of statements might later appear (to a prosecutor) to be relevant to some such investigation.” In other words: the deck is stacked heavily against you, and you have no idea what you are up against.
**It's my heartfelt belief that our news is unhelpful, at least partially, because of women.  No man in the universe really wants to read stories about ending bullying, or acts of kindness, or whether transgender people in Nigeria are getting noticed for their poetry.  All this belongs to our girls; and when women weren't a part of the political equation and weren't buying any of our newspapers, and most political discussions were made man-to-man and thus on a man's level, the newspapers were filled with relevant facts for the main purpose of maintaining a country.  You could even find the pages filled with the debates made in Parliament.

The case is almost the opposite today.  The complex machinery of the state is ignored.  The most important philosophical discussions are split into parties of "love" and of "hate."  A woman's brain is interested more purely in ending domestic and social suffering; and now our feeds are flooded with all kinds of "inspiring" little stories that get a woman's attention but make a man want to strangle people.  A man should have his paper and a woman should have hers.  The mixing of them has made a paper for slaves.

***The truth of civilization is that you can civilize yourself right into a wasteland; and the constant need to improve your country is just as responsible for ruining great civilizations as the desire of enemy countries to enslave them.  In the words of Chesterton:
For my part, I believe this is really how people began to be savages. They progressed clean out of their clothes. They did so because they had already progressed clean out of their wits. They got some fad about food, and forgot how to cook it; they got some fad against houses, and forgot how to build them. They began to believe in doctors rather than in the wholesome tradition of the whole tribe. Over-civilization and barbarism are within an inch of each other. And the mark of both is the power of medicine-men.

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