The structure and

performance of laws 



The Characteristics

Of Laws 


In a democracy, the objective of laws is to serve the best interests of the people and reflect their highest aspirations. Laws are the useful, i.e., problem-solving, means of government by which the ends of government are attained.  Since laws have the same general characteristics as all other useful products, they, too, can be designed and improved by the same quality methods used to design and optimize other products.





Letter of the Law

A law is a written order -- a set of instructions, or software -- that provides directions for human behavior. The entire written content of a law is the "letter of the law," and it is nothing more or less than the fixed arrangement of its words and punctuation.  The letter of the law conveys the spirit of the law.


Spirit of the Law

Contained within the letter of the law is the purpose, or intent, which is termed the "spirit of the law."  For any given law, the spirit of the law is the hoped-for change, or benefit, that the law will produce, as predicted by the designers of the law. In other words, laws are tools that are intended to be useful.  Since the spirit of the law is the reason for its existence, the letter of the law is subordinate to the problem-solving intent of the law. 



Laws are the forcible means by which a government achieves its goals; they are coercions, restrictions, prohibitions, or commands for action that attempt to regulate or change the behavior or status of those individuals and institutions that are subject to the law.


To encourage individuals and institutions to comply with the law, each law has a mechanism of enforcement, or authorized sanction (the "carrot or stick"), that is applied to accomplish the intent of the law.  Subsidies, fines, and imprisonment are examples of mechanisms that may be used as the forcible sanction of a law. 



All laws consume and divert resources. The costs to a government for the creation and operation of its body of laws are borne by the people. To pay the direct costs of laws, governments create and enforce additional laws (at additional cost to the people) to raise revenue through sanctions such as taxes, fees, and fines. 


There are nine principal costs of a law of government: 


1)  The cost of the research and design effort that is required to create the law.

2)  The cost of the legislature to conduct the legislative process and perform legislative

      oversight of the law. 

3)  The cost to promulgate the law, its amendments, and eventual repeal. 

4)  The disbursement of funds from the treasury as specified by the law. 

5)  The cost to enforce the law.

6)  The cost to administer and interpret the law in the courts of justice. 

7)  The cost of compliance: the time, labor, and funds that are expended by those who

      are required to comply with the law. 

8)  The opportunity cost, or the loss of opportunity for individuals and institutions to conduct

      alternative activities of high value, such as education or research, because the

      resources for those activities were instead applied to the law. 

9)  The cost to assure and improve the quality of the law through quality assurance

      (QA) and quality improvement (QI) programs.  


Side Effects

Laws, like all other human creations, may or may not be useful, but they always produce unintended side effects.  The parameters used to measure the side effects of laws are the human rights, living standards, and quality of life standards of the people -- any or all of which may be unintentionally degraded when a law is enforced. 



Since every law forces a change in the natural order of things and, since every law imposes restrictions, incurs costs, and produces unwanted side effects, the performance, or usefulness of each law, in terms of its overall effect upon the well being of the public, can be derived. 


The performance of a law is, simply, the measure of the problem-solving benefit of the law minus the measured sum of its burdens (restrictions, costs, and side effects).  If the net benefit (benefit minus burdens) is positive, the law is useful. If the net benefit is zero, the law is useless. If the net benefit is negative, the law is detrimental.  For a democracy, the only valid laws are those whose net benefit is positive


Laws are the product of human creative efforts and are therefore fallible. They may fail in their objective as a result of design defects or become outmoded. They may also incur excessive costs or produce unacceptable side effects.  Fortunately, laws, like every other human-made product, may be improved by design changes (amendments) and they may be repealed when they are found to be less than useful.  



In a democracy, the ultimate purpose of laws is to solve or mitigate the societal problems that degrade or threaten to degrade the liberty and well-being of the people, i.e., the "public good." Click here to learn more about the parameters that define the public good.