EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 7, 2013

Column: Beware of the law you didn't know you broke

Taylor Armerding
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — I’m not trying to rain (after the fact) on anyone’s parade, or their fireworks.

It’s just that waving flags, listening to first-rate orchestras play, hearing celebrities sing their hits and watching massive fireworks displays – while perfectly fine things to do – seem somewhat akin to fiddling while Rome burns.

For the past few decades, every year that we celebrate Independence Day we are a bit less independent. And the most depressing part of it is that most of the increasing dependence is welcomed or ignored. We don’t even shrug our shoulders, let alone burn with outrage, when our president brags about how many more millions have been brought onto food stamps on his watch.

More dependence? Hey, that’s just “the village” taking care of its own. As the president said, “government is the one thing we all belong to.” And we nod, apparently not caring, or even remembering, that it used to be the other way around – government belonged to us.

Even more troubling: The kind of government surveillance that (justifiably) prompted massive outrage from alleged liberals under President George W. Bush gets only muted complaints when it is done to a much greater degree under President Obama. After all, his surrogates say, you can trust him. Whatever he is doing is for our own good – to keep us safe.

According to polls, a majority of us agree – it’s just fine for the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect information on who we call, from where and for how long, along with every activity we conduct online. We’re not terrorists. We have nothing to hide.

And that is where we are dangerously deluded. We no longer have any clue about whether we have anything to hide.

Declarations like that remind me of something my brother, a physician, told me a good 20 years ago. He and several other doctors were running a group practice. It opened his eyes to the crushing burden of government regulation.

Please – hold the nasty calls and emails claiming that he and I think medicine should not be regulated. Of course it should – my brother has always been a strong advocate of the role of government in holding the medical profession to high standards.

The problem, he said, is that the regulatory thicket had grown so dense and covered so many trivialities that it was impossible to know if his practice was in compliance with them all.

“I could get inspected and find out that I didn’t have enough boxes of rubber gloves on the premises,” he said, adding that while he knew he had plenty, he didn’t know if that was enough to comply with regulations.

That kind of minutia is not only true for medical offices. James Duane, a professor at Regent Law School and former defense attorney, gave a highly entertaining, and highly disturbing, lecture several years ago (Check it out on YouTube) on why you should never talk to the police. And it is not just because anything you say can and will be used against you. It is because anything you say might somehow, some way, end up putting you in violation of the law.

Duane noted that the Congressional Research Service cannot even count the current number of federal crimes. That’s right – the federal government itself doesn’t even know how many federal crimes there are.

But they fill about 27,000 pages in more than 50 titles of the United States Code. And that’s not all of it. As Duane notes, the statutory code sections often incorporate, by reference, the provisions and sanctions of administrative regulations promulgated by various regulatory agencies authorized by Congress. Don’t ask for a precise number of how many of those regulations there are, but the American Bar Association thinks there are “nearly 10,000.”

No, the NSA is not listening to your every phone call. It is not reading every email, text message and social media exchange you conduct in real time. It is not tracking your every browser search, web page visit and online transaction as you make it.

But it is collecting and storing it. All of it. And if at some point the Obama administration or that of some future president decides your activities are of interest, do you really think that it will not be able to find in years of your daily actions that you have violated one or more laws or regulations spreading across 27,000 pages?

You have plenty to hide. The tragedy and the danger is that you don’t know it. And by the time you do, it will be much too late.

It is almost comical how people feel powerful when they succeed in getting government, “out of people’s bedrooms,” as if our sex lives and abortion were the fundamentals of freedom.

Meanwhile, you’re voluntarily carrying around and riding in tracking devices. Government is in our cars, our workplaces, every room in our houses and with us on the streets as well.

Sure, it’s all very good for catching the criminals. It’s just that at some point, you may say or think the wrong thing, and government may decide you are the criminal.

That ought to prompt us to some sober reflection along with the celebration.

Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net.