When we think of rule of law failure, countries like Zimbabwe and Somalia come to mind. But as Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg points out in his latest piece over at Public Discourse, rule of law can also be subtly eroded in wealthy countries. The negative consequences for risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and long term investment, he says, can be far-reaching.
Risk is an inherent part of the workings of market economies. But Gregg notes that’s not the same thing as uncertainty:
Measurable risks are . . . no deterrent to the making of economic choices. If we take them seriously, they help us to calibrate our economic choices to be consistent with our responsibilities, resources, and opportunities. The same measurements also allow us to distinguish between prudent risk takers and the reckless, and reward them appropriately. Uncertainty, by contrast, involves those risks that cannot be quantified. It can occur either because of the sheer complexity of a given situation or because the subject matter cannot be reasonably measured. As long as a situation of uncertainty persists, it will deter many people from even considering whether to take economic risks.
Uncertainty in America, according to Gregg, is being magnified by the sheer complexity of laws such as the United States Internal Revenue Code:
A tax code of this size and complexity which is subject to so many sources of potentially conflicting official and semi-official explanations is bound to embody significant contradictions, and offers considerable scope for arbitrary decision-making. Uncertainty is the result. It’s also valid to claim that the same tax code may well be impossible for large numbers of honest law-abiding citizens to understand and comply with—not to mention difficult for conscientious civil servants to administer justly. As a result, many people may unintentionally violate the law or simply choose to forgo making any number of potentially wealth-creating opportunities for fear of violating the law.
Another example is the thousands upon thousands of pages of legislation being passed by Congress every year. As Gregg writes:
Then there are the rule-of-law problems associated with the sheer volume of law that directly shapes American economic life. The 2010 healthcare reform legislation, for instance, amounted to 2,700 pages. Not far behind it in length was the 2010 financial overhaul act: a mere 2,300 pages. More than a few legislators have confessed to never having read either piece of legislation in its entirety. Nor should we assume any great familiarity on their part with the thousands of pages of legislation which these acts superseded, integrated, or reinterpreted. The possibility that many laws governing healthcare and financial services have subsequently been rendered unclear, inconsistent, and impossible to comprehend is high.
These erosions of rule of law, Gregg says, result in large incentives not to take risks and not to make long-term investments. It also encourages entrepreneurs to look elsewhere for a more friendly, stable and comprehensible legal environment.
Read the piece in its entirety at Public Discourse.