Balance of Law
One of the great problems in political and moral philosophy is that of the balance of law. Plato, in his ring of Gyges tale, was one of the first to present this problem. It was later developed by thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Mill.
The problem can be presented in the following way. If there is not enough law, then people will tend to behave badly. While thinkers varied in just how bad the bad behavior would be, the general consensus is that people will not be very nice. But, if there is too much law, then people will be too restricted and this leads to a wide variety of problems. As with porridge, the ideal is to get the laws just right: enough so that bad behavior is checked, but not so many that people are strangled in rules and limits.
Not surprising, people disagree a great deal about how many laws (and what sort of laws) are just right. For example, liberals in the United States tend to think we need lots of laws to control corporations, to protect minorities, to protect the environment and to provide social goods. As another example, while American conservatives claim they are for “small government”, they tend to want more laws limiting things such as sex, drugs and various personal liberties they disagree with. this nicely matches the view that the guiding “principle” of most people is “people should do what I want and not do what I do not want them to do.” So, people tend to favor many laws against what they dislike and for what they like. They tend to be against laws that are for what they are against and against what they are for.
Also not surprisingly, thinkers also disagree. For example, Mill argues for fairly limited restrictions on liberty, while Aristotle held that individuals must be greatly restricted (for their own good, of course). Interestingly, these thinkers all agree that the laws should be such that they produce the best results. What they disagree about is the extent (and content) needed to produce these results.
While discussing the abstract matter is easy enough, the most significant challenges come about when specific matters are being discussed. For example, consider the oil that is contaminating the ocean off the coast of America. This specific situation raises questions about the extent to which the oil industry should be regulated. Naturally, the big abstract problem arises on this level as well. If there is too much regulation, then companies will not be inclined to drill for the oil that almost all of us use. If there is too little regulation (or it is not enforced or it is not good), then oil companies will do what people tend to do in such situations-what they think is “best” for them, even though it generally is not really the best.
Interestingly enough, the balance of law tends to see saw in a very predictable pattern: first, there are few (or no) laws. Then something bad happens. Then there are more laws. Then people get lax about the laws. Then something bad happens. Then people create more laws. Then people get lax about the laws. Then…Well, you get the picture.
In the case of the example at hand, there will probably be “tough new laws” passed by Congress to regulate the oil industry. These laws will be added to the piles of previous laws that were created following past badness. Then, people will grow lax and there will be another disaster. Then more laws will be created. Repeat until doomsday.