Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Laws in a land of outlaws

The city of Albuquerque passed a law some time ago against using a hand-held mobile telephone while driving a motorized vehicle. The intention of the law is clear enough, and the motivations behind it are a mystery to no one. Holding a steering wheel with one hand and holding a telephone up to the ear with the other hand gives a driver less control in case of an emergency, and being distracted by a telephone conversation is more likely to get one into an emergency situation than if one were devoting full attention to driving. (The Insurance Information Institute has a web site with information about cell phones and driving.)

I have not conducted a systematic or scientific investigation of the matter, but as a pedestrian walking several miles daily along busy streets, I have amused myself by making observations of how many drivers I see talking on cell phones as they turn corners, change lanes, approach intersections and perform other maneuvers that require a combination of paying attention and keeping a vehicle under control. I have seen drivers hurtle through red lights, apparently unaware that they did not have the right of way. I have seen truckers negotiating a tractor-trailer through a left turn using one hand on the wheel and one hand to the ear. I have seen motorcyclists holding a cell phone to an ear as they drive; since wearing a helmet would interfere with talking on the telephone, they wear nothing to protect their heads in the event of a crash or a spill. I have seen drivers holding to the wheel with the little fingers of both hands while the rest of their two hands were holding a telephone as their thumbs poked keys to dial a number or send a text message.

While looking at people driving while using cell phones, I have also seen drivers doing other potentially dangerous things while driving, such as eating or drinking or lighting cigarettes. I saw a car weaving back and forth across a divider line on a busy city street as the driver used both arms to pull a sweater over her head. Watching what people do while driving is a good method of witnessing a number of astonishing practices.

In observing mobile telephone booths, I have counted the number of cars traveling along a stretch of road for a period of time and also counted the number of drivers ignoring the law against driving while using a hand-held cell phone. Sometimes only 3% of the drivers are observed breaking the law. Sometimes it's 12%. Whatever the percentage may be, it is clear that the law is being ignored. The law seems to be as difficult to enforce as it is necessary. And this raises an interesting observation one could make about laws in general: by the common sense has degenerated to such an extent that one needs laws to protect people from their own foolishness, the laws are unlikely to be capable of doing what they were designed to do. Virtues cannot be legislated into existence, and folly cannot be legislated out of existence. As soon as government is necessary, it is too late for government to do any good. Laws do not make idiots wise; they only make idiots outlaws.

When George Fox was challenged on his interpretation of the Bible and asked whether he could read Hebrew or Greek, he responded that a knowledge of the languages of scripture are not nearly as important as having the spirit that made inspired the scriptures in the first place. If a person is already filled with love and generosity, then he can easily understand a text urging people to be loving and generous. If a person is not filled with love and generosity, then a text urging people to be loving and generous is unlikely to be understood or followed. Scriptures are effective and inspirational only for those who do not need them. Those who have the spirit have no need of being inspired. Those who are uninspired can only make a travesty of texts and institutions meant to inspire them.

My idea of a utopia would be a society in which people are so spontaneously aware that they would avoid dangerous activities without being prompted. People would simply not do such stupid things as driving while talking on a telephone. They would not become intoxicated. They would not enrich themselves by cheating or stealing from others. They would be truthful. In such a society there would be no laws, because there would be no need for them. (Recall Bob Dylan's observation (in the song Absolutely Sweet Marie): "To live outside the law you must be honest." Living outside the law, however, is not the same as being an outlaw. Living outside the law is having such a elevated degree of integrity that one has no need for laws. Being an outlaw is having such a diminished degree of integrity that laws are incapable of altering one's behavior. I would love to live in a utopia filled with people who live outside the law. Alas, I live in a dystopia filled with a bad combination of laws and outlaws who cannot benefit from them.


Jayarava said...

HI Dayamati

You might find this lecture on TED helps to fill in the picture on why we cheat (on the law or whatever).