Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through. – Jonathan Swift, A Critical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind
The law has been on my mind recently.
There is of course, the series of fiascoes around the world as leaders say daft things and the courts get involved to try and apparently sort things out.
Then there is the stuff that most people don’t see – the kind of things that we assume are being looked after because someone surely must be looking after such things.
But it’s dawning on me, that that isn’t the case.
I was reading through some clauses in a rather dry document today when I realised that they had been transposed incorrectly into another document.
I’ve seen this kind of mistake before – when the meaning of something has been completely changed because of how the position of a comma was interpreted.
Now, these things matter because people then do things on the basis of these documents – real money gets spent, real lives get changed and they have an impact on what goes on in the world.
The activists shutting down cities are trying to make a point, but real change will happen based on what you find in documents like the one I’ve been going through.
And so I wondered if I could make a comparison between writing laws and programming.
Both involve crafting sets of instructions – clauses in one and statements in the other.
A legal document is actually very similar to an algorithm – it sets out what happens in a prescriptive and procedural way.
In theory, if you step through the document one line at a time you’ll end up executing it – just like a computer would execute a program.
Now the one thing we know about programs is that they contain bugs.
Programs are among the most complex intellectual structures ever created – and we know they are full of flaws.
We somehow need to make things work inspite of the flaws, so we spend a lot of time trying to get the architecture right and deal with bugs when we find them.
Legal documents are, perhaps, as complicated but done entirely by hand.
They can be more than a thousand pages long, so perhaps 30,000 lines.
And they’re executed by people – who are notoriously less reliable than a computer when it comes to following set of steps.
What’s the point I’m making here?
I think it’s that if you accept that any large piece of legal material is going to contain bugs, then you need to also look around to see where the viruses are that are going to exploit those bugs.
In other words, are lawyers white hats, who’re trying to fix the bugs or are they black hats who are writing viruses to exploit the bugs – the ones looking for loopholes?
The image I now have of a piece of legislation is an algorithm, this slightly pathetic looking attempt to make sense of things floating there just waiting to be attacked by vicious creatures looking to exploit it.
Ok – but does this matter at all?
The answer to that is I’m not sure yet.
But, if what I’m suggesting is right and the law is full of bugs then we should probably approach laws, both new and old, with sceptical eyes, expecting to find bugs that need fixing.
Because the chances are they’re going to be used in a way that creates a result we didn’t expect and don’t want.
Maybe we should be paying more attention to what our leaders are doing.