56,892 Shades of Government

Since the second world war the British State’s control over the behaviour of individuals, in the form of legislation, has increased to a staggering degree. Today, according to official government records there is at least 56,892 acts of legislation that British citizens are subject to. From 1945 to the present day, over 55,247 new acts of legislation (excluding amendments) have been passed by parliament, which is 789 a year on average. To put that into perspective, in the previous 70 years a mere 972 new acts of legislation (again, excluding amendments) were made law, which is 13 a year on average. Thus in the space of 140 years we’ve gone from an average of 13 new acts of legislation a year to 789. That’s a 6,000% increase. To believers in the efficacy and virtue of interventionism this is progress, but to those who comprehend that the State is an opposing force to wealth creation and to human liberty this represents the slow disintegration of a prosperous society at the hands of the institution that is supposedly necessary to its existence.

The wiki on the mises.org website provides an excellent explanation of what legislation is:

“Legislation is a process of law-making, also known as statutory law, whereby a ruling or governing body creates laws which are then imposed on its members and up-held by the powers granted to the legislative body or its related institutions. With respect to states or nations, the power to enforce legislation is commonly executed by the police and court system. Legislation is a form of positive law, and can be contrasted to customary law which instead of being imposed on society from “above” is the codification of the norms common to a society.”

An example of customary law is a law prohibiting murder or theft, which is a codification of widely held moral principles. An example of positive law is legislation that decrees that chairs on castors must have five legs (in fact there’s 7 acts of legislation in the UK relating to seating at work alone). Note the fundamental difference between the two. Customary or common law underwrites your freedom to act peacefully according to your own choices, whilst positive law overwrites it by forcing you to act according to the choices of every government official who ever drafted legislation. The former is liberty, the latter is tyranny in the making disguised as liberty.

There is currently 2,977 draft Statutory Instruments (laws made by a person or body other than the legislature but with the legislature’s authority), which is draft legislation that is “awaiting approval” and which “…generally either becomes law or in some cases is withdrawn.”

Such cases, in fact, are very few. Searching for the term “repealed” in the government’s legislation database returns a mere 677 instances, which is about 1.1% of all legislation. Think about that for a moment. Imagine if you only ever corrected one percent of your behaviour and choices. How could you possibly achieve any goal? And how could you prevent unintended or undesirable outcomes?

That’s the thing about interventionism. Unlike actors in free markets, who are continually adjusting their behaviour to meet each others’ needs, there’s virtually zero adjustment of the government’s behaviour over time based on feedback. Government legislation is almost completely unresponsive to the needs of the individuals it intends to benefit; the bodies of rules just keep piling up – and the intended beneficiaries end up having to adjust to them all as best they can.

According to legislation.gov.uk there is currently 2,977 draft Statutory Instruments. Some of these date back as far as 1998, which seems to indicate that the rate at which draft legislation is created far outstrips the rate at which it is being approved (or not). Not only is the government pumping out far more draft legislation that it can process, it can’t even keep its legislation database anywhere near up to date. As the website explains:

“All legislation held on legislation.gov.uk in revised form has been updated with effects of legislation made up to 2002 (except for some effects of 2002 legislation that were not yet in force at the end of 2002). About half of all items of legislation are also up-to-date to the present. For the remainder there are still effects outstanding for at least one of the years 2003 to the current year.”

More frightening still, the custodians of the website casually acknowledge that it doesn’t include all types of legislation, and that all records of Statutory Instruments from 1948 to 1986 are only partial datasets.

The number of new Statutory Instruments that have become law since the Conservative coalition government came to power five years ago represents a significant acceleration of the general rate of increase from the previous decade. In 2009 there were 1,407 new Statutory Instruments. A year later there were 2,485, an unprecedented increase of over 1,000. Curiously, the only other surge of similar magnitude also happened in a year that a Conservative government came to power, in 1970, when the number of Statutory Instruments shot up by 717 on the previous year.

Whether or not this reveals anything in particular about the Conservative party I’m not sure, but the unrelenting rise in the number of acts of legislation since the second world war does show at least that the political left and right in Britain is convinced of the efficacy and virtue of interventionism. The only difference between Labour, Liberal, Conservative and even ‘libertarian’ UKIP is how and where they wish to intervene in our private economic exchanges and to what extent.

The big three mainstream parties want to do more of it than UKIP does, but make no mistake: every member of every political party is absolutely convinced that many aspects of your private economic life require some degree of intervention by government – either for your own good or someone else’s. Your autonomy as a human being and any real economic harm done to you or others as a result is to them secondary to the illusory ‘greater good’ at which they aim.

We live in the Age of Interventionism, but probably and hopefully not for much longer. The next decade is quite possibly going to be one of those hinge moments in human history. The Age of Interventionism won’t go down without destroying much wealth in its death throes, but the continued flourishing of the Internet, the P2P economy, private currencies like bitcoin and the emergence of other blockchain-distributed technology – all products of liberty – should provide us with something solid to hold onto and to lead ourselves forward with into a brave new age of decentralisation and more liberty.

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