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More widespread ignorance of “the law” is an implication of a regulatory state growing in size and complexity. The tendency of expanding regulation to over-criminalize prompted this reexamination of the legal doctrine of “presumed knowledge of the law”, by Michael Anthony Cottone (abstract at the link, but it offers a free download of the full paper). I believe the cause of justice compels additional protections for individuals or companies against administrative accusers. Not only does this appeal to my sense of fair play, it also should incent bureaucrats to write clear rules and minimize conflicts with existing regulations. And it may discourage overaggressive bureaucrats from pursuing charges over disputes whose resolution might be subject to more reasonable compromise.

Over-criminalization was also the impetus for Glenn Reynolds’ “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime” (another abstract with a free download available):

Though extensive due process protections apply to the investigation of crimes, and to criminal trials, perhaps the most important part of the criminal process — the decision whether to charge a defendant, and with what — is almost entirely discretionary. Given the plethora of criminal laws and regulations in today’s society, this due process gap allows prosecutors to charge almost anyone they take a deep interest in.

The “due process gap” is said to give rise to the expression, “a good prosecutor can get an indictment against a ham sandwich.Here is a good discussion of the Reynolds paper at The Volokh Conspiracy, with additional links. Reynolds offers a number of possible remedies, including the creation of certain forms of liability for prosecutors, banning plea bargains, and limiting criminal prosecution for regulatory crimes. There are a few other interesting suggestions at the last link.

Heavy regulation of economic and social affairs places burdens on a society’s ability to prosper economically and culturally. It requires real resources to administer and imposes compliance costs on those it regulates. There are unnecessarily high social costs to a system of detailed rule-making by unelected bureaucrats who have incentives to both increase their dominion and to enhance their long-term career prospects. The latter is often accomplished via “partnership” with some of the largest regulated entities, which leads to rules favoring those entities at the expense of smaller competitors. And a large regulatory complex also offers an avenue through which the executive branch can promulgate rules based on expansive interpretations of existing law, circumventing checks on executive power enshrined in the Constitution. To these drawbacks we can add the consequences of over-criminalization. These should be addressed through limits on prosecutorial discretion and a more neutral perspective on presumed knowledge of administrative law.