Ignorance of the Laws is Not an Excuse

As Murray Rothbard once said, “The state is a gang of thieves writ large.” The only purpose of the state is to forcibly transfer wealth from the general population to members of the state and its cronies. People like to argue others, probably because they suffer from Stockholm syndrome. But the United States government long ago lost any right to claim it was anything other than a gang of thieves. That’s because the state’s method of wealth transfer is the law and the law is so expansive that there’s no way of even knowing when you’re violating it:

If you walk down the sidewalk, pick up a pretty feather, and take it home, you could be a felon — if it happens to be a bald eagle feather. Bald eagles are plentiful now, and were taken off the endangered species list years ago, but the federal law making possession of them a crime for most people is still on the books, and federal agents are even infiltrating some Native-American powwows in order to find and arrest people. (And feathers from lesser-known birds, like the red-tailed hawk are also covered). Other examples abound, from getting lost in a storm and snowmobiling on the wrong bit of federal land, to diverting storm sewer water around a building.

“Regulatory crimes” of this sort are incredibly numerous and a category that is growing quickly. They are the ones likely to trap unwary individuals into being felons without knowing it. That is why Michael Cottone, in a just-published Tennessee Law Review article, suggests that maybe the old presumption that individuals know the law is outdated, unfair and maybe even unconstitutional. “Tellingly,” he writes, “no exact count of the number of federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions has ever been given, but estimates from the last 15 years range from 3,600 to approximately 4,500.” Meanwhile, according to recent congressional testimony, the number of federal regulations (enacted by administrative agencies under loose authority from Congress) carrying criminal penalties may be as many as 300,000.

That’s not all. The vast number of laws alone wouldn’t be so bad if you had to knowingly be violating them to be charged but that too as gone by the wayside:

And it gets worse. While the old-fashioned common law crimes typically required a culpable mental state — you had to realize you were doing something wrong — the regulatory crimes generally don’t require any knowledge that you’re breaking the law. This seems quite unfair. As Cottone asks, “How can people be expected to know all the laws governing their conduct when no one even knows exactly how many criminal laws exist?”

There might be some legitimacy to the claim that the state exists to preserve order if the common law practice of culpable mental state still existed. After all, if you unknowingly violate a law and are then informed of that law’s existence you can take action to avoid continuing to violate it and order would be preserved. But that’s not how the system works. Once you’ve violated a law, it doesn’t matter if you know of the laws existence, the state gets to transfer wealth from you to itself. And since there are so many laws on the books it’s impossible to not do something the state can use to justify a forcible wealth transfer.