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Legal Code and Computer Code

By bgalehouse in Op-Ed
Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 06:16:54 PM EST
Tags: Politics (all tags)

The U.S. legal code is a body of law which has been developed over time by many different people. The same can be said of many computer programs. I'd like to suggest that some of the lessons learned from the software industry might be applicable to the field of law.

It's considered good practice to divide any large software package into modules. Each module should have a specific purpose, and should take great pains to avoid distractions from this purpose. It is, for example, a bad idea to make the user interface a tightly integrated part of the operating system kernel.

Having said that, let's consider the U.S. tax code. Clearly, it has a specific purpose, or did originally. Also, it is a reasonably well defined body. At least enough to have a name. However, it seems to try to do more than gather revenue. Among other things, it tries to encourage (subsidise) people to purchase houses, go to college, save for retirement, and invest in municiple bonds.

The IRS has been subject to significant scope creep. The IRS cares if you have a farm. The IRS cares what your mortgage payments are. The IRS cares if you have a student loan. The IRS cares about many things which other government bureaucracies also care about. The IRS is a good example, but hardly alone.

Perhaps, given my current audience, isn't necessary for me to explain why this is a problem. But just to be thorough, let me say that in the software world it is reasonably well accepted that such a design flaws lead to increased maintenance costs, and lower overall performance. It should not be necessary for multiple government agencies to know that you have a student loan. As it is, the information must be spread about. This means more forms, and more uncertainty.

The only solution is for different parts of the legal code to be assigned specific purposes, and for our legislators to respect these purposes. One reason that this might be problematic is that different legislators have different amounts of control in different areas. It is very tempting to add functionality to a module under your control, if the owner of a more appropriate module refuses to add said functionality.

This is a political argument. Is this something that our politicians need think seriously about. I am trying to decide how to express these points to nontechnical people. I do intend to write a letter to my congressmen on the subject.

Suggestions are welcome, as are better examples, references to any legal studies along these lines, etc.


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Legal Code and Computer Code | 34 comments (31 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
legal "statements of purpose" (5.00 / 5) (#1)
by Arkady on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 01:18:18 AM EST

In addition, many people have suggeste that all laws should be preceded by a statement of purpose paragraph (no longer that about 100 words) which states the goals of the Bill. Any part of the Bill found to be in conflict with (or even found to be not relevant to) the purpose would be stricken by the Courts.

That would prevent a huge percentage of the abuses legislators sneak into law in the U.S. ;-)


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

why it will never happen (none / 0) (#3)
by rebelcool on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 01:38:21 AM EST

such a thing would reduce the amount of pork in bills, however, this is never going to happen because it is that very pork which gets legislators re-elected.

And interesting thing is that most people think that congress is full of crooks, with the exception of their own congressman. And of course, their own congressman keeps his constituents happy by bringing home the bacon so to speak (that is, the government money from his own pork additions).

Everyone hates the pork that congress puts in bills that doesnt benefit them, but loves the ones their own congressman puts in because it DOES benefit them. And since congressmen are elected by his own region, this leads to:

1. It is quite difficult to unseat an incumbent. Very few succeed. This is why many congressman have been there for decades, truly.
2. The continuing existance of pork because the rest of us have no say in the election of a congressman which doesnt represent our region.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site
[ Parent ]

Unseating incumbents (none / 0) (#5)
by Sunir on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 01:51:22 AM EST

It is quite difficult to unseat an incumbent.

I'm not familiar with the elections in the United States at the level of congress. Is it really very unlikely for an elected congressperson to be removed from office at the next election? In many other countries, removing incumbents is a fairly common occurance. Even cabinet ministers are frequently unseated.

"Look! You're free! Go, and be free!" and everyone hated it for that. --r
[ Parent ]

Incumbents (none / 0) (#7)
by ckm on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 02:29:52 AM EST

For some of the reasons outlined above, it's very hard to un-seat a congressman or senator at the national level.

Incumbents also have great advantages in fund raising (very important in the US), services like free postal service and offices in Washington and their home state, etc.

There are groups lobbying to reform various bits of the legistlature, but it's slow going and not very popular, as you might imaging. A fair number of states, however, have term limits on statewide candidates.

In the end, it really comes down to a money problem. In a country as large as the US, it takes A LOT of money to campaign for office, esp. at a national level. It's MUCH easier to raise money if you can already do things for your, er, 'supporters'. It also does not help that there are basically only two political parties....


[ Parent ]

US governance (none / 0) (#13)
by wiredog on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 09:28:21 AM EST

First, the US is not a parliamentary system. Cabinet ministers can not be members of Congress, due to the Separation of Powers in the Constitution. This is why the majority party in Congress is often not the party that holds the Presidency. In fact, with Congress having two houses (the House of Representatives and Senate), the Congress itself may be controlled by two different parties. That is the situation now, with the Republicans holding the House, and the Democrats holding the Senate. It takes a fair amount of compromise, power plays, and general politicing for any legislation to get past both houses of Congress and then past the President.

This has good effects. The Anti-Federalist idea of "the more impediments to legislation, the better" is often realized. This is why there will likely be no economic stimulus package, which would probably have no effect until it was unneccessary, passed. It takes substantial unanimity to get anything done in a hurry. The events of September 11 2001 were the sort of thing required to get that unanimity. Which disappeared fast.

This also has bad effects. The Anti-Federalist idea of "the more impediments to legislation, the better" is often realized. This means that a crisis isn't dealt with when it is small and manageable, but when it is major enough to convince a majority that it is, in fact, a crisis. You have to convince 218 Representatives (one half of the House), and 67 Senators (the two thirds required to override a Presidential veto) that it's a crisis. That takes time.

And even if all that is done, the legislation may have to pass scrutiny by the courts. And there are 50 States, each of which has slightly different styles of government.

Peoples Front To Reunite Gondwanaland: "Stop the Laurasian Separatist Movement!"
[ Parent ]

yep (none / 0) (#21)
by rebelcool on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 03:00:11 PM EST

as another poster mentioned, incumbents have quite a number of perks related to money.

Also, few people know who their congressman is off hand. Thus when they get to the polls they'll read the list of names, see one that they've heard mentioned or seen on tv and vote for that guy. That guy will usually have plastered the neighborhoods with his name and face, also.

The opposition would have to gather even more money to do it, since they don't get the perks of free mail and what not. Sometimes if they're quirky enough they'll get some airtime on news stations. I can think of one guy a few years back here in Texas who drove all over the state in a small pickup truck campaigning. He lost, but he did gather alot of airtime and I think he came in second.

So, generally (though unseatings DO occur..), the incumbent stays in congress until he either retires or dies. This is especially true at the senator level.

A few states might have term limits, but I cannot think of any at the moment...

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site
[ Parent ]

Federal elections (none / 0) (#22)
by davidduncanscott on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 06:07:58 PM EST

A few states might have term limits, but I cannot think of any at the moment...
Well, if you mean term limits on CongressCritters, then the answer is 0, because they can't impose term limits on Federal offices. Quite a few have limits on at least some state positions, as do many municipalities (which is, of course, one of the reasons Mr. Bloomberg is now Mayor of New York).

I'm a little torn, myself. Seems a shame to throw away a perfectly good politician just because his expiration date has rolled around. Maybe we should just execute a randomly-selected group after each election...

[ Parent ]

This will never pass (none / 0) (#4)
by scanman on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 01:40:08 AM EST

How are we to convince the very people who take advantage of this problem to fix it? It's most likely impossible.

"[You are] a narrow-minded moron [and] a complete loser." - David Quartz
"scanman: The moron." - ucblockhead
"I prefer the term 'lifeskills impaired'" - Inoshiro

[ Parent ]

Bah! (none / 0) (#14)
by FcD on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 10:51:18 AM EST

One can say the same thing about programmers who write "job security" into their employers' applications. Sure, some dinosaurs have been rewriting the same functions for 30 years. But most programmers today at least pay lip service to good design principles. The problem isn't lack of motivation, it's lack of brainpower.

[ Parent ]
For Example... (none / 0) (#15)
by FcD on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 11:01:07 AM EST

I saw your comment and thought it was referring to an entirely different subject (rational reordering of law generally) then it actually was (statement of purpose preambles). When I clicked Reply, I made sure that my comment would be filed as a child of your comment, for to ensure that the flow of discussion remained neat, tidy and ordered. The motivation was there, the brainpower was lacking.

[ Parent ]
Re: legal "statements of purpose" (5.00 / 1) (#18)
by AzTex on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 01:49:53 PM EST

Something like this was tried in the Constitution of the C.S.A.  At the end of Article 1, Section 9:

Every law, or resolution having the force of law, shall relate to but one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.
If you compare the Constitutions of the U.S.A. and C.S.A. you see that the C.S.A. Constitution closes a few loopholes and eliminates some shortcomings.  There is, of course, an unfortunet paragraph legitimizing slavery.

But other than that, I suppose the same abuses of government by our representatives that take place today were also taking place in the 1800s because our Constitution lets them get away with it.

solipsism: I'm always here. But you sometimes go away.
** AzTex **

[ Parent ]
Perhaps it is (5.00 / 1) (#2)
by joecool12321 on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 01:37:22 AM EST

The IRS isn't creeping. It may take many many inputs, but it only brings one output (your tax in $$). It doesn't enforce civil liberties, or wonder what e-mail you're sending. It is modular, and stays (according to your post) within the scope defined for it. That it needs many inputs doesn't make it non-modular.

I think your frustration is with "pork projects" -- legislational addendums which allow for, well, pretty much anything. The goal is to attach a pork project for one's home state to a bill which will assuredly pass. The line-item-veto discourages this type of activity.

I may be wrong, I'm still new

Duplication of services (none / 0) (#6)
by bgalehouse on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 02:14:24 AM EST

If you want to subsidise student loans, there is a set of offices already responsible for that. There is absolutly no reason for the IRS to have to get involved in the subsidy of student loans.

Everybody assumes I'm talking about 'pork'. I couldn't care less if you consider student loans to be pork or beef. For the discussion at hand, I argue only that there should be exactly one agency which hands them out.

Sure, I think that this would make pork easier to spot. Maybe readable code is too much to ask for. Certainly it is from some programming teams.

I suppose that, eventually, the code will be too hard for even the experts to understand. And then the legislature will have lost all power to the courts, as the resulting tangle will leave everything to interpretation. Something to watch for, I suppose.

[ Parent ]

Programming legislation (4.50 / 2) (#8)
by jesterzog on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 03:28:49 AM EST

The first thing that comes to mind is why just US law? The general theory would (or should) be applicable to any country or entity that has laws and rules and departments and constitutions and so on. The rest of this comment isn't specifically what you've suggested, but it's very related and has been playing on my mind for a while.

I've often wondered what it might turn out like if a group of expert software engineers were unleashed on a legal web of laws and bills and so on, just to see how much they could simplify it and shorten it to make it easy to follow. You could even mark up laws and make them machine-understandable to allow computers to do the bulk of legal compilations before they were reviewed by a person at the end of the chain... which would save billions of dollars on lawyers for one thing.

To be honest and at the risk of sounding really arrogant, I think that in terms of information management and specification efficiency and usefulness, computer science is probably leagues ahead of anything that's currently being used in the legal profession. By this I don't just mean ordinary organisation of information, I mean the extra layers involved like references and the constants and the procedure and function calls and so on.

If you were to write law properly using that sort of theory then you could be sure, for example, that if a department changed its name then all that would need doing was changing the base value of that name. All the laws and bills and legislation that referred to it would update automatically, and there wouldn't need to be a plethora of patchwork updates to existing legislation in every corner of the system.

One of the big problems with this though is that lots and lots of people need to understand how it works. It's not just the lawyers, it's the people who make the laws and the people who write them down and the people who interpret them in court. Obviously it's important that an ordinary person be capable of understanding how to interpret the system if they're on trial for something.

For the last few years I've been on the commitee for a small organisation, and one of the things that's come up was revising the current constitution. This is a big job, because any change needs a majority vote of everyone at an AGM, and this can only happen once a year and still needs lots of very careful updating after that. The document has always been a very monolithic, with half of made up of information and rules that don't really need to be in a constitution, in my opinion.

For example, one of the proposed changes was to do with contacting members. Someone suggested updating it so we could also formerly contact people via fax and email as well as by telephone. I tried suggesting that the actual essence of this was that the communication was reliable and verifiable, and since we could be stuck with this for 40 years and communication methods are changing so often, maybe the constitution should have an external reference to values that could be changed more easily. Unfortunately it didn't go down well at all, especially with the retired guy who's spent most of his life being a legal arbitur and considers himself an expert on anything legal. I just dropped the matter after that fulfilled with the knowledge that 40 years from now we'll still be able to contact people by facsimile, but probably not by a videophone unless someone gets their act together and spends another three months of their life organising to update it.

Another big problem is that designing things like this really well is simply hard. For one thing, you need people who are really good at what they're doing. If computer science is anything to go by, how many software projects are there out there that can rightfully claim not to have a few hacks in them? And then there's the problems that come with not fully understanding how the issue might change at the beginning. Being caught out later can require substantial rewrites and restructuring. Unless everything is done very carefully by very organised people, I can easily see it turning into another big ball of mud, just like an ordinary software project.

But then in theory if done right, it would make it much easier to use a computer to derive existing legislation from the groups of rules and constants. Because it's derived from rules, the end legislation would theoretically be much smaller and simpler -- unlike the present when there's libraries full of legislation overriding earlier legislation and case examples and so on, most of which require the services of a qualified lawyer to interpret reliably, and even then the depth of interpretation could depend on how much you have to spend.

90% of the government buerocracy that goes into administration, maintenance and interpretation of laws and rules might promptly disappear in a puff of logical efficiency... and I guess this is why I don't expect it will ever happen. Lawyers make their living on interpreting and manipulating what I personally see as a very inefficient and muddy system, designed to be incredibly specific and yet is increasingly vague and debatable. For now at least, I'm quite happy to let the legal profession develop the theory it wants on its own. I don't mind preaching to the converted, but I think trying to argue it to most lawyers would be a waste of time -- especially not being a lawyer myself.

jesterzog Fight the light

Take: an intelligent lawyer, a software ... (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by ragnarok on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 04:43:39 AM EST

Yes, mix in a lawyer, software engineer/developer, and some legal historian or so, and so on and so forth.

You do realize, don't you, that this is likely to be a protracted, multi-generational and world-wide project. You'll need to compare not only the forms of various laws, but also their respective performances, the general environments in which they exist, and such variables.

Mind you, this is the sort of thing that the Universities and other Tertiary training institutes cshould be already involved in, and if they can do it for astronomy, then they can sure as eggs do it for law. About the only problem I can see is the necessity of law-students to get off their pampered life-style and into an even more pampered one where they can practise the art of lightening pockets without being accused of grand larceny - one of the joys of law! gollum ...Precious!!!

Set it all up as a logical database/text management system, you know, like datalog, and try to sort it all out like that. Or make use of the genome project database systems, and - my god, this is pretentious - get some logician turn all the legal formulations into logical pseudocode, then into logical functions - Z notation, and compare the expressed purposes with the end results. Then go through all the functions and sort out all the variables in the real world situation - talk about supercomputers and talk sweet, cause this is what you'll be needing - churn them through the logical function machine, and work out the effects various variables have ...

A: it's not impossible; I once tried building a similar function series starting with the complaint that computer literacy etc hadn't added to worker productivity - you know the whine, it's worse than the mozzies - using the body weight/brain size correlation of the mammals as a starting point for the starting comparison, and gave it up as I was only an undergrad at the time, and you know how much lecturers love being upstaged by their students <8^{(>
B: it's guaranteed to put Artificial Intelligence back up there on the poster-board, and in the firing line;
C: it's guaranteed to get you invitations from the likes of the Nobel Committee, though for what I have no earthly idea;
D: it's a political hot potatoe, and is thus guaranteed to be resisted with all the intensity of the fabled Irishman who drowned at the distillery, who would've been rescued by his mates, except that he bravely fought them off, and who had to go out at least twice to go to the toilet!

Oh, well,
if (Slightly Off-Topic)

"And it came to healed until all the gift and pow, I, the Lord, to divide; wherefore behold, all yea, I was left alone....", Joseph Smith's evil twin sister's prophecies

You mean comparative law, perhaps? (none / 0) (#11)
by cthugha on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 05:43:19 AM EST

You'll need to compare not only the forms of various laws, but also their respective performances, the general environments in which they exist, and such variables.

Yep, definitely comparative law. I should know, I took it last semester :). It does exactly what you say; the "general environment" it considers include such things as history, cultural context, etc. It's also concerned with the development of legal systems or various fields of law (I did consider doing the research paper that constituted assessment for the subject on the historical development of IP law, but I haven't formally studied IP, so I left it alone).

Set it all up as a logical database/text management system, you know, like datalog, and try to sort it all out like that. Or make use of the genome project database systems, and - my god, this is pretentious - get some logician turn all the legal formulations into logical pseudocode, then into logical functions - Z notation, and compare the expressed purposes with the end results. Then go through all the functions and sort out all the variables in the real world situation - talk about supercomputers and talk sweet, cause this is what you'll be needing - churn them through the logical function machine, and work out the effects various variables have ...

It wouldn't work, because law isn't a closed formal system (despite what the legal positivists might try to tell you). It often uses vague terms that are open to interpretation, like "good faith", "the reasonable person" or "sufficient proximity". It does this because it has to be flexible and practical given the real world situations it's presented with. Law so limited and precise that it could be represented using formal symbolic notation capable of being processed by a Turing machine would (at least at time of writing) be useless, for the same reasons that declaratory AI isn't yet capable (and probably never will be capable) of working in the real world.

[ Parent ]
IRS related response (none / 0) (#10)
by ahsyed on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 05:32:16 AM EST

All of the things that you talked about (farms, marital status, etc) are related to your tax return. Why those things are related is based on what the government decides. And like a previous post says, the IRS is very modular. It does one specific thing, taxes. It just has several different parameters to effect the individual or corporate taxes.

Not just modularity - also lack of duplication (none / 0) (#16)
by bgalehouse on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 11:11:14 AM EST

The IRS has the role of subsidising student loans. Why does this have to be done through taxes? It is already done in other ways by a seperate student load office. Instead of making the interest tax deductable, why not subsidise said interest more directly, using the office which already exists for the purpose?

I'm fairly certain that the situation is analogous for farms.

[ Parent ]

Logic and the Legal Code (none / 0) (#12)
by ignatiusst on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 09:20:53 AM EST

In the software world, systems (more-or-less) follow a pre-defined logic.. Code it this way, it doesn't work; code it that way and it works (and then we concern ourselves with making it work better).

In the world of legal code, systems follow a path of special interest spending and hot-button topics.. There is no real logic in the legal code (especially the Tax Code) (btw: this is the big reason I hung up my public accounting hat and picked up a nice, pointy coder's hat).

I would love to see a more elegant approach to bureaucracy, but I think we will have to wait for the AI to take over the world.. :)

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. -- Jonathan Swift

Same logic (none / 0) (#17)
by bgalehouse on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 11:21:52 AM EST

In the sofware world, the effects of a given bit of code are reasonably well defined. However, the rationality of the specification is often questionable. Sometimes a good architect talks to the buisiness about them, and they get better, but sometimes not. Furthermore, in some systems, the system requirements keep changing.

I'd say that such an environment makes it even more important to keep things organized. Not less.

[ Parent ]

Nice thought, but analogy won't fly (5.00 / 3) (#20)
by tudlio on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 02:24:51 PM EST

I'm really intrigued by your idea, but I think it rests on a false analogy.

In computer code:

  1. There's a direct correspondence between what you tell the code to do, and what it does.
  2. You work in an environment that is a contained and abstracted subset of reality.
  3. The consequences of your actions are strictly utilitarian: the code works or doesn't work.

In tax code:

  1. There's an indirect correspondence between what you direct the code to do and what it does.
  2. You work in the real world which is messy, complex and rife with unintended consequences.
  3. Your code is not strictly utilitarian. Government is not just a mechanism, it's a social institution.

I'm a fan of tax incentives and penalties, because they use the powerful emergent phenomenon known as the market to drive social change. The alternative to tax incentives is often some form of authoritarianism. I'll gladly accept inefficiency if it means I remain free to make my own decisions.

insert self-deprecatory humor here
I beg to differ (5.00 / 1) (#24)
by bgalehouse on Wed Jan 02, 2002 at 09:39:15 PM EST

  1. Judges attempt to be impartial. Judges at least in theory, try to read code in the most obvious manner possible. Furthermore, legalese tries to be more precise that normal english, this makes it, in some sense, smaller and less expressive. This leads to longer sentences. The same can be said of computer code, but to an even greater degree.
  2. Software interacts with the real world, through the specification process, through the end user, and through automation. Dealing with these vague things with precise computer languages is part of what makes programming difficult. From what legal code I've seen, the same can be said of legal code.
  3. There is plenty of computer code which mostly works. There are plenty of cases in which different users find the same code to be differently correct.
If tax incentives and penalties were not duplicating the purpose of other various government branches, (EPA fines, student loan grants, etc) that would be fine. I'm not trying to debate subsidies in general. Call a subsidy a subsidy and have an appropriate branch hand it out. That only makes it easier to debate its merits.

[ Parent ]
Why is this suprising? (none / 0) (#26)
by gbroiles on Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 02:24:49 AM EST

Laws are texts that are intended to guide or determine human behavior.

Software programs are texts that are intended to guide or determine computer behavior.

It doesn't seem especially remarkable that they turn out to have some similarities - recipies, standardized accounting or manufacturing procedures, and other regulatory texts turn out to be similar.

I don't think that - from the government's perspective - having multiple agencies thinking about student loans is inefficient. The Department of Education wants to make sure that people are only getting loans to attend real schools, and that they're really attending. The IRS wants to make sure that only people who are really paying back student loans are deducting the interest from their tax returns. If we eliminated the IRS' or the DOE's access to that data, fraud would be easier and more common. Is that good?

If your real beef is with the basic assumption that it's sensible to use the tax system to serve dual purposes of funding the government's operations while encouraging some behaviors and discouraging others .. well, I agree, but you don't really need any of the computer/software-related thinking to reach that point. It seems much simpler to say that you'd rather see each of us pay some flat (probably low) percentage of our income, or of the money that flows through our books, and let the government prohibit things which should be forbidden, and otherwise stop trying to gently nudge people towards some things and away from others (like education, or three-martini lunches, or whatever.)

However, you seem to be assuming that the basic goal of government is efficient, fair, comprehensible operation .. and you may find that there are a lot of existing interests (in the private and political sectors) who have no interest in making things "better" because they're doing very well already and think efficiency or openness will take away the advantages they now enjoy.

Efficiency (none / 0) (#30)
by bgalehouse on Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 06:30:22 PM EST

I don't think that - from the government's perspective - having multiple agencies thinking about student loans is inefficient.
But they all do the same thing for student loans - subsidise them.

Having a bunch of programs which deal with text files is fine. But most people prefer to have one which handles the bulk of their editing needs.

[ Parent ]

Yes but (none / 0) (#33)
by greenrd on Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 10:35:18 PM EST

This is not a terribly stupendous insight, and I don't think "ooh, let's cost-cut" warrants a k5 article.

"Capitalism is the absurd belief that the worst of men, for the worst of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all." -- John Maynard Keynes
[ Parent ]

Consistency/Circumstances and a Sidenote (none / 0) (#27)
by Hobbes2100 on Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 11:57:24 AM EST

Computer programs can be judged (proven) correct. A legal ruling is an opinion (both by definition and by legal terminology). Consider the "majority" and "dissenting" opinions of the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, computer programs are consistent (if type "asdf", then "a" "s" "d" "f" appears on the console). This is desireable. In the law, two people commit a crime. Are they treated in a consistent fashion? Well, yes ... to an extent. The circumstances of the crime are also taken into account. For example, repeat offenders are treated more harshly than first time offenders.

Now, yes, you could say that given the same crime and the same circumstances, there should be a deterministic outcome. However, I would argue that many circumstances are incomparable and, hence, would have to be enumerated indiviudally. This is sounding less and less efficient.

Finally, I think the real problem with taxes is not the IRS but all the little taxes we pay everyday (yes, the IRS is a problem too). Sales tax, gas tax, tobacco tax, alcohol tax, parking permit, school tax, land tax, zoning permits, etc. all add up. But, we don't tend to notice it as much as the $3500 tax bill at the end of the year.

Someone famous once pointed out that the government gets away with taking more of our money when it does it a little at a time than when it does it in big chunks. I'm inclined to agree. Do I think this means would should submit a total list of what we do with our money? Not at all. We should just pay a little more in the big chunk and not pay the nickel-and-dime stuff the rest of the time.

Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? --Iuvenalis
But who will guard the guardians themselves? -- Juvenal

Use of constants in legislation (4.00 / 1) (#28)
by Scrymarch on Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 01:49:02 PM EST

The Australian state of Queensland refactored some legislation over the last decade or possibly more to make it more maintainable. Fines are now being specified in "penalty units" instead of dollar amounts. When they want to adjust fines I presume they pass a single law changing the definition of penalty units.

What the ...? (none / 0) (#29)
by Malicose on Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 06:25:10 PM EST

Your vote (-1) was recorded. This story currently has a total score of 73.

You were the last vote. We've considered the votes and comments, and decided the story should be posted. Thank you!
Am I the only one who missed whatever happened to submission moderation that allowed this to occur?

It's manual (none / 0) (#32)
by greenrd on Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 10:32:40 PM EST

I believe story posting is up to the discretion of The Editors[tm].

"Capitalism is the absurd belief that the worst of men, for the worst of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all." -- John Maynard Keynes
[ Parent ]

No. (none / 0) (#34)
by bgalehouse on Fri Jan 04, 2002 at 04:23:46 PM EST

Read this explanation, but basically there is a sligtly more complicated evaluation method which involves comment scores.

[ Parent ]
Code vs. law (none / 0) (#31)
by dennis on Thu Jan 03, 2002 at 09:44:32 PM EST

I think part of the reason why the legal system is such a mess is that there are a great many customers, with lots of different requirements, and lots of little bits of code to satisfy one customer are hidden in unrelated modules to avoid pissing off the other customers. With software you're either writing custom code for one client, or you're writing mass-market stuff and people can take it or leave it. With the legal code, there's one program for everyone, and it affects practically everything. This imho is a good argument for limiting the scope of government - the more it touches, the more the legal code becomes an unmanageable mess due to conflicting requirements.

Another problem, of course, is that there's no design phase. Nobody thinks about the overall design of our legal code, we just hack it as we go along, inserting GOTOs wherever we want to tweak something.

Legal Code and Computer Code | 34 comments (31 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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