Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
July 1999 #3

How many dumb laws do we need?

Not guilty, your honor. I have never bought or sold a dead body, defaced a milk can, or killed a pigeon.

When Boston candidate Doug Krick released a list of out-of-date Massachusetts laws, I was relieved to discover that I haven't broken most of them.

Never fed garbage to a milk cow. Never got a tattoo from any but a licensed physician, or from one of them, either. Never cut down a neighbor's fruit tree on Sunday, or on any other day for that matter.

Don't ask me which silly laws I have broken: I have a constitutional right not to incriminate myself.

Because I am a fairly law-abiding citizen, it doesn't bother me that these laws are still on the books: anything that makes the government look foolish is fine with me. Libertarian Doug wants these laws abolished. I just want them publicized.

Some say that fairly law-abiding citizens who annoy the government could be arrested for breaking an outdated law, just to get even with us for annoying the government. This possibility occurred to me a long time ago, which is why I don't swear in public.

Along with the state law prohibiting blasphemy, there was once discussion in my town of a law against public obscenity. I don't know if it ever passed, but just in case, if someone aggravates me, I keep my mouth shut and simply toss them the five-finger curse I learned when I lived in Greece. Neither Marblehead nor Massachusetts has a law against a Greek curse.

Marblehead does have a law against crossing the street on Sunday unless absolutely necessary, so unless absolutely necessary I spend the day at home; if anyone from across the street bothers me, I just call the police.

Some of those old laws are simply a way to show appreciation. For example, each fire company responding to a fire alarm in Marblehead is legally entitled to a three-gallon jug of rum. Recent fire chiefs have never requested this, but it must be nice to know they can if they want, as long as the firefighters don't swear while they're drinking across the street on Sunday.

Mine is not the only Massachusetts community with strange ordinances. According to "You can't eat peanuts in church and other little-known laws," written in 1976 by Barbara Seuling, you can't take a bath in Boston without a doctor's written prescription, or drive Texas cattle over its roads if they're used by other cattle, which today is defined as commuters.

Massachusetts is not the only state with strange ordinances, either. Though personally, I agree that it should be illegal to sing out of tune in North Carolina, or to walk through the streets of Maine with your shoelaces undone.

There are some who say the existence of such laws leads to a lack of respect for government. And the problem is...?

Decent law abiding citizens (like you and me) obey the sensible laws because we respect the law, not the government. Most of us understand that society can't function if we are all allowed to murder, steal, and deface milk cans. Most of us have always ignored the laws that didn't work for us. Drive 55 miles on the turnpike? Not if you want to survive the trip. Eventually, the law caught up with our common sense and the speed limit was raised.

If you think the law against scaring pigeons is strange, take a look at our tax code. Shouldn't there be a law against scaring taxpayers?

Instead of doing tattoos, licensed physicians should be prescribing marijuana for cancer victims, which is also presently against the law for some reason.

Why should we worry about buying dead bodies when the Massachusetts House just voted to allow the now-former Essex County Treasurer to get paid for three years after Essex County was abolished?

Never mind the fruit trees. How bizarre is a law that allows other north shore communities to dump their toxic waste in Salem Harbor because it isn't using its legal "allotment" of pollution?

Someday someone will write a book about strange laws passed at the end of the 20th century, and people will be laughing at us. Shouldn't there be a law against ridiculous laws?

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.  Her syndicated columns appear in the Salem Evening News, the Lowell Sun, the Tinytown Gazette and MediaNews Group newspapers around the state.

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