Laws without enforcement lead to injustice

“There oughta be a law …”

Often, that is the reflexive response spoken by the proverbial man on the street, whenever there’s news of injustice or unfairness.

And so the sharp-eared politicians, sensitive to such tides of public opinion, go and pass a law. And then come the regulations, by the ream.

(We ask our readers, how many of you have actually read an entire law and the regulations that derive from it? It’s not something we necessarily recommend, but if you ever do it, you are not going to believe how complex, convoluted and minutiae-oriented these things can be.)

Governments, of course, issue regulations all day long. They are the work product of the bureaucracy. For any perceived problem, government has at least one solution for it, on paper. Of course, there is a difference between paper solutions and real solutions.

In the Cayman Islands, more often than not, the government has close to zero ability to enforce the laws or regulations it has already passed, not to mention a never-ending plethora of new ones.

Take, for example, our top headline from the front page of Friday’s newspaper: “Licensing enforcement worries businesses.” Here’s the first sentence from the story: “Cayman Islands business owners are not particularly concerned about complying with a new Trade and Business Licensing Law, but they say they are worried about a lack of enforcement against those who do not follow the rules.”

With a few deft keystrokes, we could tweak the above headline and sentence to apply to any number of laws and derivative regulations, such as the Labour Bill, liquor licensing, gambling, environmental conservation, private pensions, customs collection, “prohibited publications,” local film ratings, planning and building codes, marine parks, work permits, trash collection fees, or (our favorite example) tinted windows on motor vehicles.

Passing laws and regulations to address perceived problems – in the absence of universal, consistent enforcement – does not bring the country any nearer to solutions for those problems. What it does do is create a dangerous system of poorly understood parent laws, and even more obscure and obfuscatory regulations, that together present an infinite number of opportunities for the victimization of people who do not belong to a favored class, or who are disliked by someone with power, such as a politician, civil servant or influencer.

Take, for example, the devious devices – such as near-impossible “literacy tests” and burdensome “poll taxes” – which elections officials in the American South employed at their discretion to prevent black people from voting during the Jim Crow era.

Think it cannot happen here? The conditions for abuse of human rights certainly exist: Recall last month’s court judgment from Chief Justice Anthony Smellie, who skewered “irrational” decisions by our Immigration Appeals Tribunal, which he deemed to have “impeded the course of justice” in its mishandling, and subsequent rejection, of two applications for permanent residency.

Throughout the ages, selective enforcement of labyrinthine laws has been a tool of tyrants.

So the next time you learn of something that perhaps should not have happened as it did, and you hear yourself muttering, “There oughta be a law …” – check yourself for a moment, and ponder the possible unintended consequences.

Maybe, on balance, there really oughtn’t.