Thursday, September 03, 2015

Silly laws

A society clearly needs to draw a balance between the necessity of maintaining some laws that make an advanced civilization possible and the danger of imposing overly burdensome laws that seriously threaten the liberty of individuals.  In particular, I am skeptical of local laws.  To some extent, individuals do have a choice as to where they wan to live, and there may be some merit to the idea that individuals can choose a state whose laws best reflects his or her positions.  It is much more difficult, however, to defend many laws enacted at the city or county level.  To some extent, variations may genuinely represent differences in the values of the residents, but I suspect that a lot of the variation really is the result of the idiosyncrasies of local elected officials rather than overall differences in opinions of local residents.  As a business school professor, I see the appalling waste that results  variations in local laws and regulations burden businesses without any significant benefit to residents.

Some clearly outdated laws remain on the books in some locations.  It is, of course, highly unlikely that local officials would seek to enforce them, but one wonders that ever motivated local jurisdictions to impose them and to what extent these laws could be abused if selectively enforced.  Sometimes, it is possible to see that silly laws could potentially have offered a small to modest benefit to the community based on the values of the time, but one wonders why the specific issue addressed by the law should get such a priority over other issues and why officials created a very specific ordinance rather than making the issue part of a more general law that would better reflect a coherent set of underlying values.

The Town of Wilbur, Washington, apparently still has on its books a law making it illegal to "ride an ugly horse."  Ironically, the Town Council might see this quaint ordinance as a potential boost for tourism and find it potentially economically disadvantageous to repeal it despite the law's obvious
obsolescence. What gave rise to this law in the first place?  To what extent had the town experienced or anticipated serious repercussions of unsightly horses being ridden?  Why confine protective measures of a potentially serious threat to such a narrow scope?  Yes, I get the point that few individuals, in practice, would find occasion to ride mules, rhinoes, donkeys, zebras, and giraffes, but why not focus more generally on aesthetic threats to the local environment rather than merely tackling  the cases where the threat is brought about by animals of burden?

But even under a limited scope, one question is whether the law was intended to as apply as narrowly as it was literally written.  Was this measure intended only to prohibit riding such a horse, but not to use it to draw a carriage or otherwise bring it into public view?

I can think of two potential reasons--albeit not particularly good ones--why the ban might be intended to apply exclusively to riding. One concern could be that having a horse to ride was a privilege only available to the more socially prominent residents.  Thus, a rider on an ugly horse could impugn the dignity of the upper class.  Another possibility could be that although an ugly horse used as part of a carriage could, to some extent, threaten the public decorum, the horse individually ridden would be so much more visible and thus, in practice, represent a greater felt intrusion.

There could potentially be several reasons for a law that would either selectively ban riding the ugly horse or more generally ban bringing such a horse into public view in the town, whether as part of a carriage or other arrangement:
  1. A general concern about the demoralizing impact of seeing the ugly horse on persons present.  Even if people did not experience great distress, the sight could be a bit of a "downer" and slightly depress mood, perhaps to the extent that civic pride could be threatened.
  2. Local merchants, restaurateurs, and hoteliers could have worried that the presence of such animals could demean the neighborhood, reducing the attractiveness of  offerings of local businesses, in return both depressing profits and property values.
  3. The concern might have been specifically about horses that take only an ugly appearance as a result of abuse.  Although ugliness is a subjective matter, it could potentially be easier to prove that the horse was "ugly" than that any disfigurements had actually resulted from abuse. In addition, in past centuries, many tended to hold a belief that as man held dominion over animals--who were supposed to serve man--forbidding the owners from abusing animals did not constitute a legitimate governmental objective, thus threatening the validity of a law with such a purpose.  (Yes, this reasoning sounds preposterous today, but many people used to believe that garbage.)
  4. One politically individual--or a group of powerful persons--were seeking to disadvantage one specific adversary whose only horse could be deemed ugly. It may have been possible to selectively enforce the law only when the disfavored individual tried to enter town and greet a convoy of exceptionally unsightly horses advancing with impunity into town with complete indifference.
When push comes to shove, one wonders how much controversy the ordinance generated in its time.  With the advancement of technology, a contemporary ban on the driving of "an ugly truck" would almost certainly engender the wrath of the "hicker" element of society, with emotional and indignant rallies and demonstrations rambunctiously demanding an immediate repeal.

Ultimately, if this type of law really had merit--for one of the above reasons or for entirely different ones--why did it not gain traction more widely?  Would it have helped if local officials, proud of their effective measure to set things right, could have communicated their visions to over local officials over the Internet?

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