8/9/16: is it absolute that nothing should be absolute? (not an ad for absolut)

I got into an argument the other day over the application of laws: My contention is that if we’re going to make something a law, then it should be automatically enforced, period. Following the panoptic model, we’d use gradually improving surveillance–be it satellite, roadside, or even driver-to-driver–to ensure that if you drove recklessly, even if for a moment, you’d be penalized for it. No more discrimination, which might favor the “poor, pretty white woman” with nothing more than a warning, and no more margins with which to be that asshole causing a pile-up as the person navigates three lanes of traffic to get to an exit or cash lane he or she didn’t want to wait in line for. Bad drivers would soon be off the road, good drivers would be even more cautious, and everybody would be safer. (In turn, they’d also probably be faster.)

I was going to say that there should probably be extenuating exceptions, argued in court–but as I type it, I realize I can’t actually think of any. There’s no reason to break the speed limit, ever, and those who should–even if they’re rushing to a hospital–should probably still pay a fine for the disruption and danger they cause elsewhere. (This is similar to how ambulances work: the patient often pays for that undisputed service after the fact.) 

Where we start to run into trouble is if a law is bad: When, say, the data is used not to lower speed limits so as to help avoid accidents, but so as to create money-making speed traps that catch regular drivers off-guard. Yes, a driver should be paying attention, even–or especially–on familiar terrain, but they also have a right to reasonable expectations. An absolute model like this would also require lawyers at the ready to contest the fundamental laws, or to help adjust them if they were proven to cause more harm than good, and now we’re stuck in the world of legislation, which hedges on everything and has little room for absolutes.

I say all of this because I was reading an interview with Barney Frank, and he points out that Bernie Sanders appealed to many young voters because he did take absolutes, even if he had no viable means of enforcing them. As Frank puts it:

His method was, “I’m gonna say what’s right, and say it and say it until people accept it.” That’s a more appealing posture if you don’t have anything seriously at stake.

Frank also disputes a major contention from Sanders is that “things were bad because people hadn’t been trying.” The truth, according to Frank, is hardly that simple. And yet–like the enforcement of laws–shouldn’t it be? We tangle ourselves up trying to pay off our taxes without triggering an audit because they’re almost intentionally overcomplicated, trying to account for every possible scenario. In trying to be fair to every party, they harm almost all of them. We allow judges to determine the sentence from within a preset range, which results in someone like Brock Turner getting the bare minimum, while an identical crime gets the maximum. How is this helpful?

If there are reasonable exceptions, they should be part of the law. If a law is filled with nothing but exemptions, it should probably not be a law. We can reach absolutes, but we have to want to do the work necessary to transition to them: I jaywalk because the law is not enforced, and I would stop if it were. Therefore, if jaywalking is something that should be stopped, it should be enforced. And if it is not, there should be no law that allows for it to be penalized. Vague, anodyne statements and rules befit politicians like Frank; there should be no room for them in the law. And the sooner we separate the two, the better.

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