Of the making of laws there is no end

In previous posts, I’ve argued that “technique” can help explain New Labour’s economic policy and authoritarian tendencies. Another feature of government since 1997 has been the proliferation of new laws, with an estimated 2,685 laws having been introduced each year since Labour came to office, including a total of more than 3,000 new criminal offences.

Again, Jacques Ellul (writing in 1954) attributes “the enormous proliferation of laws” as being a consequence of the “technicisation of the law”. In the past, if a law was promulgated more than once, that was normally the result of its having gone unobserved the first time:

Legal multiplicity today is something else again. Whatever a technician believes is true must be made into law. But his inferences only concern details. His analytic spirit leads him to perceive, understand, and affirm strictly localised truths; and thus strictly delimited, they then become the objects of law. There must be a law for each fact; whence the indefinite proliferation of the legal apparatus. (The Technological Society, p.297).

Ellul contrasts a technical approach to the law with a legal system “which merely establishes principles and lays down general lines of procedure”, entrusting to the judges “the creation of the living law”:

Such a state of affairs is intolerable to the technician, who dreads above all else the arbitrary, the personal, and the fortuitous.

Hence the judiciary must be hemmed in by ever more prescriptive laws that give judges less room for discretion (for example, mandatory criminal sentences), “in such a way that the citizen will understand exactly where he is heading and just what consequences are to be expected”.

As Ellul continues (in a phrase which perfectly encapsulates much modern legislation, not least that originating in the EU):

The smallest detail must therefore be invested with the majesty of the law. (p.298)

As with my previous posts, I’m not saying this in order to absolve New Labour, and certainly not in order to argue for its continuation in office. However, the imperatives of technique mean we should not expect any major change of direction, whichever party (or coalition of parties) comes to office next June.

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One Response to Of the making of laws there is no end

  1. As always, Ellul sees the truths that both sides of our government want to ignore.

    I have this problem grading my students’ papers. I set up rubrics for myself as to how I assign points, but there’s always a student who makes some error I didn’t foresee and that doesn’t have a pre-set penalty. So the next time I create the rubric, it gets a bit longer in order to cover the issue — and it allows me less discretion in my own grading.

    I guess it helps explain why Jesus turned from the “don’ts” of the 10 Commandments to offer up only 2 “dos,” both of which involve love, against which there is no law.

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