What are laws for?

Why do we have laws? It seems to me that the only good reason for creating a law or regulation is to protect an identifiable victim. Other arbitrary purposes, such as defining or imposing morality, are simply not good enough. But is this distinction a founding principal of our governing civil institutions? I don’t know. Anyone? (Harold….?)

We do have a variety of non-secular institutions that define rituals, beliefs, behavior, and other constructs along different lines, and these are not bound by the principal of protecting an identifiable victim. Does our separation of civil and religious institutions cover this principal, or does our Western and Judaic tradition blur the distinction?

While civil governments do issue proclamations, such as defining an official seal of the state, or designating a day of commemoration, this seems to me to be a separate function of government outside that which can be decided and acted on by the court system. A political body or office-holder may well declare that one plus one is two — or three — but there are no legal consequences for disagreeing. Unless we can define a specific and testable group to be protected by an answer of two or three, it would be inappropriate to elevate either proclamation to be a law or regulation.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. “Unless we can define a specific and testable group to be protected by an answer of two or three, it would be inappropriate to elevate either proclamation to be a law or regulation.”

    Interesting except for the fact that in principle the pronouncement of a judge is nothing more than proclamation. What makes it law is a body of documents and precedents that define the current understanding.

    Then there are —

    “One Man, One Vote”
    “E Plurbus Unum”
    “Equality before the law”

    No standing legally, but have meaning culturally. There is always one standing group — Americans.

  2. When I was in law school, I took an excellent class and participated in a legislative drafting clinic taught by B.U. Law Prof Robert Seidman on this subject. His theory was that laws are about influencing human behave to achieve a desired result. The rest of the class was on how law impacts human behavior and how to draft legislation that actually accomplishes what you want to accomplish.

    I have stuck to this approach ever since.

    This naturally begs the question: “but how do we determine the desired result?” That is where policy comes in.

  3. What I’m hearing, then, is that the “protection of an identifiable group” litmus test is not an established principle. Rats.

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