Laws should be drafted so they can serve for extended periods. Settled laws, which have been bedded down by a body of case law, should not be lightly altered. Every time the law is altered, the long-term planning of lives and businesses is disrupted. It can take years, sometimes decades, before the case law removes all uncertainty in a new statute. The intervening period is one in which uncertainty about the law reduces prosperity and makes both people and commercial ventures timid and cowed—as they would be under a despotic regime. Herbert Spencer commented on this damage:

There had been passed 18,000 public Acts; of which … four-fifths had been wholly or partially repealed … unquestionably in multitudinous cases, repeals came because the Acts had proved injurious. We talk glibly of such changes—we think of cancelled legislation with indifference. We forget that before laws are abolished they have generally been inflicting evils more or less serious; some for a few years, some for tens of years .… What do these imply? Loss of money, often ill-spared; great and prolonged anxiety; frequently consequent bad health; unhappiness of family and dependents; children stinted in food and clothing—all of them miseries which bring after them multiplied remoter miseries … Seeing, then, that bad legislation means injury to men’s lives, judge what must be the total amount of mental distress, physical pain, and raised mortality, which these thousands of repealed Acts of Parliament represent! (The Sins of Legislators, 1884.)

Businesses and individuals thrive on certainty. Yet children have no certainty when education standards are being constantly changed, working people cannot plan for retirement when tax codes are constantly changing, and ‘investment incentives’ are causing investors to chop and change until vast amounts are lost. The regulatory environment is in fact the biggest irregularity in people’s lives, jobs, and businesses. The folly of this was explained by James Madison:

A continual change even of good measures is inconsistent with every rule of prudence and every prospect of success … . It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed? (The Federalist No. 62, February 27, 1788.)

The major beneficiary of a constantly changing regulatory regime is big business. Corporations can afford to employ legions of lawyers to analyze new laws and navigate the shifting maze of regulations. They can afford to donate money to politicians and peddle their influence to ensure new regulations benefit them; indeed, with their never-ending lobbying, corporations are largely responsible for the constant state of flux in the law. This mostly comes at the expense of their smaller competitors; since regulations governing any industry are often too voluminous for one person to understand or even to read, smaller businesses voluntarily cede vast, lucrative tracts of the economy to big businesses. This is unfair to small business and inefficient for the economy, which is denied competition, innovation, and flexibility.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove