Monuments crumble. Sequoias Die. Heroes are forgotten. Fame fades. Even a hostess Twinkie gets stale after ten or twelve years.
The only thing that lasts forever are laws.
It doesn't matter if a law is goofy, or stupid, or downright vile. Once it's on the books it is likely to stay there forever.
Regardless of your opinion on the Microsoft antitrust case, does it makes sense to prosecute a software company with a law that was written in the 1800's to deal with textile mills, then updated a hundred years ago to go after railroad barons? Wouldn't it be better to have more up to date laws dealing with the problems of our times? And if it makes sense with antitrust, why not with every other law as well?
Mandatory sentencing laws have forced judges to hand out draconian sentences for relatively minor crimes. There are reports of judges being on the verge of tears as they reluctantly sentenced someone to 25 years to life for a trivial offense. But political reality keeps them from speaking out. They know opposition to harsh sentencing would be exploited at their next election: they'd be portrayed as being soft on crime. For the same reason reasonable congress members (both of them) won't even mention repealing them. These laws are not set to expire. If they were, the problem would solve itself in time.
The Patriot act contains laws so onerous that congress set expiration dates for some (but not all) of them. These "sunset clauses" are a great idea, something that should be added to all laws. There is no reason old laws shouldn't be brought out, examined, argued over, and allowed to expire if they no longer serve their purpose.
By default, every new law should expire in twenty years. Short sunsets, like two years or five years, would prevent our legal system form maintaining the appearance of stability. Longer clauses, say, fifty years, would mean we'd have to put up with laws for most of our lifetimes – hardly an improvement.
What about laws against things like rape or murder, laws that everyone but Mike Tyson or O.J. agree with? No problem. When they are set to expire congress can pontificate and thump their chest and renew them, them go home and brag to their constituents about their brave stand against violent crime.
Ideally, when this plan in implemented (i.e. when a cold, cold hell is filled with flying pigs), it should not only affect new laws, but older ones as well. We couldn't handle the chaos of all our laws expiring at once, so we'll go about it in an orderly fashion. As part of this new law, every existing law will expire twenty years later. Instead of debating new laws, they'd have to debate all the old ones, or let them die of old age.
Expirations should apply to government agencies as well. The EPA did it's best work during it's first twenty years. Then along came Carol Browner, who turned it into nothing more than a junk science machine intent on punishing industry simply because it could. That legacy is being carried on by Christine Todd Whitman. If the mandate for the agency expired at the end of twenty years, we might be free of them. If they were forced to disband and start from scratch, at least they might accidentally hire a real scientist or two.
The same goes for the FDA, whose foot dragging creates delays that have probably killed more people than their regulation has saved. How about the Education department, the poster boy for fraud and waste? Let the law that created the agency expire, shut it down and return that job to the states, where it belongs. As laws that created useless government agencies expire the budget deficit will become but a dim memory.
"But," you may object, "congress will be so busy reviewing expiring laws that they wouldn't have time to pass new ones." "Ah-ha," I answer, "Now you are beginning to understand."
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Ask a stranger to tell you about himself, and the first thing out of his mouth is likely to be his profession. People, especially men people, identify themselves by what they do. They are carpenters, or programmers, or engineers. And as much as we like to bitch and moan about working, most of us like what we do. Carpenters like to build stuff, programmers like to program, engineers like to design things, and legislators, bless their blackened, shriveled little hearts, like to legislate. Give them a spare moment and they'll give you a new law.
Laws reduce freedom, either directly, or indirectly by sucking more money out of our pockets. Keeping legislators busy arguing about expiring laws will leave them very little time to concoct new ones. Every law that expires causes a net gain in freedom. It's a win-win situation.