Book Review: Technically, That’s Illegal

If, like me, you’re tired of being overwhelmed with bureaucracy, maybe we should engage in some other experiments together. . . I want us to experiment with overlooking some of our neighbor’s faults (and assume that they’re doing the same). I want us to use our negotiation skills to solve problems rather than calling code enforcement.
-Ann Sattley

Thrice in the past month content to CopBlock.org (here, here, and here) has come from Technically That’s Illegal: An Experiment in Following the Rules author Ann Sattley, a mother, counselor and thinker who calls Marion, IN home.

I read through the 130-page book and below, did a book review of sorts – pretty much just some of what I thought were the most thought-provoking points or areas where Sattley and I seem to diverge. Overall, damn solid despite the seemingly turgid nature of the content covered, Sattley’s humor and meshing of codified and real-world examples keeps the flow informative and entertaining. Little wonder why four of four reviewers on Amazon the book five-of-five stars.

For more from Sattley, check out TechnicallyThatsIllegal.com

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Technically, That’s Illegal: An Experiment in Following the Rules by Ann Sattley

Sattley’s opening sentences in Technically That’s Illegal immediately set the tone:

I’m an eldest child. I’ve always had the inborn desire to please my elders, obey rules, and make people proud of me. While I can be abrupt, confrontation has nee been a favored activity for me.

On the next page Sattley disclosed that reading Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in college made her “uncomfortable” though she “agreed with Thoreau that governmental regulations should not override a person’s conscience.” Interesting.

Later, Sattley concluded that “either the world is getting more unjust, or I’m finally paying attention.” Maybe a little of both. And as more people find themselves in the latter the former will change for the better.

Chapter 1. Was Jack Handey Right?
My first question was, “Who is Jack Handey?” Fortunately Sattley had the foresight to share a bit about him then analyzing the type of passage for which he’s most known. She then admits that:

I’m outraged with things these days. I don’t mull on it all the time, but when I do, I get upset. Then I take a deep breath and change the subject. The subject, however, continues to make its presence known. The issue here is that reasonable people are being threatened and punished because of stupid laws.

Sattley then identifies over a dozen “problems” such as “codes meant to protect us for ourselves” and “vague codes that can be interpreted to the liking of the person enforcing them.” And, as is often pointed-out here on CopBlock.org after someone innocently called the police and someone undeservant ends up  assaulted or dead, Sattley encourages readers to “. . . consider the impact of making numerous complaints and asking the government to come to our rescue.”

If this statement from Sattley resonates with you, you may want to check out her book: “I’ve always considered myself a law-abiding citizen. . . But, the term law-abiding citizen is losing its meaning because everything is becoming illegal.” (see a clip from John Stossel’s special Everything Illegal)

Confronted with such a paradigm-shifting idea, Sattley decided to do an informal survey by taking note of the convos others in here sphere were having, and researching if their activities put them at risk, per town codes and what I’d call arbitrary man-made legislation. She right notes, “You may be interested to know that you’re probably breaking the law without realizing it.”

Chapter 2. My Friends As Lab Rats
Sattley, attune to her friends activities via their Facebook feed, offers anecdotal examples of how their statements and activities could attracted unwanted, negative attention. Topics covered include raw milk, yard sales, children walking to school, unhealthy food, the food pyramid, war on salt, lemonade stands, bible study, housing and feeding the homeless, tax cab medallions and photography.

After reading one post about springtime gardening, Sattley pointed to a woman in Oak Park, MI who was targeted by code enforcement because it was claimed that her vegetables weren’t “suitable.” Why? Because they’d been grown in the front yard, which a code enforcer decided wasn’t in sync with the  vaguely-written code that stated that the front lawn consist of “suitable, live, plant material.” Subjective, huh?

“It sure seems like people need to lighten up” Sattley concluded after detailing that a produce stand in Calyton, CA (ran by children) was shut-down due to citizen complaints. Agreed.

Later, Sattley stated that a bill “is now the law of the land” and that “New Jersey” was going to make an action “an official crime.” At root for both of these statements is a belief in external authority. Without the preemptive granting of double-standards to someone based on their place of employment (as a code enforcer, police officer, or politician) such problems likely would never exist. All of Sattley’s points support to the same conclusion – the harm exists because someone was first granted someone arbitrary authority. What is arbitrary authority? The belief that it’s ok for someone to engage in an action wrong for you or your neighbors to do based on their place of employment. Once that double-standard is allowed for it’ll only widen and worsen until we each decide to withdraw our consent.

When talking of signage permissible to advertise a yard sale, Sattley noted “After all, you don’t want an officer showing up at your sale even to issue a warning” – true, but by you not acting as you otherwise would (in a way that she herself acknowledged didn’t harm anyone) then you’ve allowed those who claim authority to usurp it. Obeying petty dictates will only allow for more draconian or numerous restrictions on your choices.

Sattley knows this even though she never explicitly spells it out. A few of her statements from the chapter:

  • it is already in the farmers’ best interest to make safe products. Their bottom line depends on it, and money talks.
  • We have all been programmed to believe that all accidents can be avoided and that safety can be legislated. As long as we maintain this flawed mindset, the government will continue to enact laws that restrict our freedoms
  • As long as the government considers it their job to keep us healthy, there will continue to be restrictions on our choices.
  • At one point in our history, the government . . . banned alcohol within our borders. The prohibition led ot much underground crime and did almost nothing to curb behavior. When will we learn our lesson?
  • man laws and codes purport to have our best interests in mind, but they wind up hurting people.

Also, since those who seek to control others rely largely on fear (force) to gain compliance, I thought Sattley’s conclusion to this chapter could have been worded to be more empowering rather than as a statement that only makes more real the threats, “my friends had better be careful. . . far more things that used to be considered benign are gathering steam as criminal offenses.”

Chapter 3. My Turn in the Maze
Suttley decided to determine “whether I am the law-abiding citizen that I thought I was.”

She found the Marion, IL municipal code online but was unable to easily print it out. She emailed a code enforcer for a copy but never heard back. She went to city hall and found the sole hardcopy that existed was not only outdated but it was in a binder that she wasn’t allowed to take. Eventually she visited a local copy shop and printed out the document, which, even with smaller font and formatting, came in around 300-pages.

Her comment after lugging home the print-outs:

Simply looking at the mound of papers in front of me was daunting and leg me to believe that there is little chance that any other resident in this town’s history has ever done what I just did. It is therefore reasonable to question whether any other common citizen (or elected official) has ever read all of the municipal codes.

There’s probably a lot of truth to that.

The codes themselves, which she said used language “confusing to just about anyone on my side of law school” applied to lightbulbs, garbage, composting, traffic violations, fire hazards, noise violations and pet violations. One particularly ridiculous bit of text stated:

No pedestrian shall cross a roadway at any place other than by a route at right angles to the curb or by the shortest route to the opposite curb except in a crosswalk.

Sattley wrote that she sometimes sees others “proceed at what I would estimate to be about a 75-degree angle, rather than a 90. What is the world coming to?” :) And while Sattley penned that:

One of the biggest troubles I see with giant stacks of legislation is that the laws and regulations end up canceling each other out or making something more confusing than it needs to be.

She stated how integral to “the image the city portray” was the “efficiency at removing solid wastes.” My question to Sattley – how can a centralized bureaucracy do anything efficiency? The people handling the removal and treatment of solid wastes suffer from the same perverse incentives as do code enforcers. With no competition there are no market signals. Code enforcers can’t claim to have more-satisfied customers than a rival because there are no rivals. Instead, they pat themselves on the back when their agency expands or when they’re able to target more almost without exception, victimless actions.

Again, it comes back to striking the root rather than hacking at the branches.

Sattley ended this chapter on a note that was both funny and telling:

I was relieved to find out that I am not the only member of my household that is violating ordinances without knowing it – my cats are also in violation.

Chapter 4. Field Observations
From Sattley: “I will focus this chapter on giving more details about some of the problems that I set forth in the first chapter.” She outlines a number of things she believes flawed with the current code enforcement:

selective enforcement – Sattley notes:

I suspect that most people don’t actually have a problem with the amount of trash their neighbors produce. More than likely, something else ticked them off and they choose to get the law involved to get even.

I agree. But that petty back-and-forth is only created or exacerbated when an uninvolved third party (like a code enforcer) is involved. Which causes such unintended consequences like individuals being “punished for unrelated and noncriminal society behaviors.”

vague laws – defined by Sattley as codes that are “meaningless.” She suggests “Perhaps the codes need to be more specific” then quickly acknowledges that “then we run into a different set of problems.” Yep – unintended consequences, perverse incentives, and the further entrenchment of the idea that certain individuals have the “right” to do things wrong for others.

ultra-specific codes – Sattley makes a couple statements that I’d think it hard for anyone to take issue with: “If a common citizen can’t readily determine whether he or she is breaking a particular law, then that law is flawed.” And “The tragedy here is that, even when people are trying to be as responsible as possible, they are penalized.”

In a passage that I think spot-on, Sattley wrote:

This isn’t meant to be a treatise against police, but I do acknowledge the possibility of a few bad cops being able to do a lot of unnecessary damage with this power. Most police aren’t malevolent, but to simply trust them and blindly obey because they’re uninformed is naive.

laws that overly-criminalize – this section, which touched-on things like cutting grass and sex offender status, can be summarized by this statement from the author, which I’d argue is applicable anywhere:

The fact that Marion, Indiana has what amounts to about seven pounds of municipal codes in the form of printed material doesn’t seem to have made the town any nicer.

convenience codes – which, according to Sattley include “anything but convenient for those of us attempting to follow the rules. As far as I can tell, these laws only exist to make the job of law enforcement easier.” One example given was property owner who was told by police that it had to be removed. “The reason? It was too tall to allow the police to chase fleeing suspects. . . . police convenience trumps property rights in this case.”

America’s idol – safety – this topic could generate many books, so there was not a lack of content for Sattley to cover. A few choice quotes:

  • We covet safety. This attitude has led to a lot of paranoia and government regulation.
  • Well-intentioned though they are, most of these reactionary laws are useless at best and criminal at worth.
  • The idol of safety has also led to insanity in our schools. Why aren’t our kids keeping up with those in other countries? Maybe it’s because going to school is quite similar to going to prison now.
  • Keeping us safe through regulation takes away freedom. If we continue to idolize safety, we will succeed in restricting freedoms

“Are we really so concerned bout safety and order that we are ready to criminalize our children for normal adolescent behavior?” That’s the question posed by Sattley after writing that “twenty-five students aged 11-15 were arrested and taken to jail for calling in bomb threats. Just kidding. They were taken to jail for a food fight.” I know I wouldn’t voluntarily pay to transport, cage and threaten some kids for such behavior and I’m sure most people wouldn’t either. But those kids, and others similarly-situated, are harassed nevertheless since some people think it’s “the job.” Because so many people continue to be led by the false idea that self-proclaimed “authorities” can do things wrong for you or me to do.

outdates laws – provided space for Sattley to give a personal example of how her non-adherence to a rule when working as an addictions counselor caused the rule to abandoned. Direct action!

revenue-generating laws – this area can be nicely summarized by this Sattley quote:

If a government entity needs to generate revenue, a good place to start would be to outlaw something. That way, citations can be issued in bulk and the problem is solved. Of course, the only problem with this is that a need for money isn’t  good reason to pass a law.

The author concluded that, “We have too many laws, and may of them are flawed.” Pretty accurate, right? Well, not exactly.

I’d say there’s no issue with the laws – they’re good – its legislation that’s the issue. The former (depending on your particular flavor) is universal law, common law, or god’s law law, whereas the latter is arbitrary and created and interpreted by humans. The former is naturally-arrived at by most people who choose not to aggress upon others not due to text on paper but due to  who have a lack of information and who, thanks to their claimed monopoly, are riddled with perverse incentives. To me, anyone who’s consciously thinking should put law before legislation. Act according to your conscience, not according to dictates made by others.

Chapter 5. Continuing the Experiment
From Sattley: “Let me ask you. Are we really the home of the free?” Is she really free when she says that she’s “not allowed to smile for my driver’s licensee picture in Indiana?” Is she free when some people dictate that she must report to a certain location at a given frequency to update her personal information with them so that they can issue her identification for the purposes of tracking her?

In this chapter the author puts herself in the test subject seat as she attempts to align her behavior with dictates she found when pouring through the Marion city code:

Field Journal A how to comply with mesh cover mandate for burning barrel?
Field Journal B do motorcycles owned violate city’s noise ordinance?
Field Journal C what percentage (and type) of vehicles driving by property violate city’s noise ordinance?
Field Journal D how do you register a pet cat?
Field Journal E how do you register a bicycle?

Sattley noted that “Several years ago I thought about the issues in this book totally differently.” So did I, and so did many people. That’s why it’s so important that we each share our journey’s with others. Both for our own evolution and to expose others to ideas that seem to make more sense.

One last thought, from the author:

In order for this great experiment to be a success, we must focus on liberty, and resist the urge to legislate. We can’t legislate our way to utopia.

EPN

Pete Eyre

Pete Eyre is co-founder of CopBlock.org. As an advocate of peaceful, consensual interactions, he seeks to inject a message of complete liberty and self-government into the conversation of police accountability. Eyre went to undergrad and grad school for law enforcement, then spent time in DC as an intern at the Cato Institute, a Koch Fellow at the Drug Policy Alliance, Directer of Campus Outreach at the Institute for Humane Studies, Crasher-in-Chief at Bureaucrash, and as a contractor for the Future of Freedom Foundation. In 2009 he left the belly of the beast and hit the road with Motorhome Diaries and later co-founded Liberty On Tour. He spent time in New Hampshire home, and was involved with Free Keene, the Free State Project and The Daily Decrypt.