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Monday, 2 March 2015

A New Role for Legislatures

I astonish myself. Here am I, a critic of governments, suggesting that there should be a new role for our elective representatives. This came to me in a flash and it is not well thought out.

It must be clear that our legislatures make mistakes – huge mistakes; but when the laws are passed, we are stuck with them. Life is an experiment. We make decisions; we have regrets. As individuals, we sometimes have the wit to learn from our mistakes. Sometimes the decisions we make are catastrophic, there is no undoing them. The best we can hope for is to avoid making similar disastrous decisions. In the case of legislation (let us take minimum wage laws as an arbitrary example), the law is passed and it has consequences – perhaps good, perhaps bad, perhaps a mixture. The minimum legal wage is raised. Some people clearly benefit, some other people are thereby priced out of the labour market. Young, inexperienced, unskilled people are prevented from putting a foot on the bottom rung of the employment ladder. They never get the chance to gain experience and skills. The legislation hurt them. But the legislation remains.

What I am proposing is that every law should be on probation, after it comes into effect. Twelve months (maybe 18 months) after raising income tax rates (for example) Parliament should be obliged to revisit the issue. They would have three options. First (and most draconian), the law would be repealed and its effects would be undone (for example, the money should be refunded). Second, the law would be repealed and the law books would revert to the status quo ante, third, the law would stand, its benefits having been demonstrated.

The objection I foresee is that this would place a huge burden on lawmakers. I see this as its greatest appeal. Large scale legislation would be dis-incentivised (what a ghastly phrase). Obamacare would never make it through Congress. Think of the chaos if it were unceremoniously scrapped a year later. Legislating would be a minefield. Our current legislators waltz into unmapped territory, blithely secure that they have made the world a better place. But what if they (or their successors) recognised that their blitheness had been unjustified?

The amount of time available for new legislation would be dramatically reduced. Time is in short supply and would be more so if debates had to take place on every year old piece of law-making.
The debates would be unprecedentedly well informed. Supporters and opponents of each piece of legislation would be able to say, “See, it worked (or didn’t work).”

Society would be become a laboratory. We keep what works, if we decide to. We dump what doesn’t. I think Edmund Burke is cheering me from Heaven.

The ‘ten year option’ has just occurred to me. After ten years every law passed and confirmed would again be subject to the same process. The poor bastards wouldn’t know whether they were coming or going.

Another example would be repeal of the laws against homosexual activity. Pass this law and review it a year later. Has society collapsed? Repeal the repeal or confirm it.

The legislative process would be almost completely constipated. You and I would be better off.
Sleep on it. Wake up and decide if it was good idea.

Tinkering should be a legislative principle. Major changes are dangerous; minor changes can be corrected.

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