Episode 157: When Well-Meaning People Make the Laws

Germany tried to make its laws against child pornography stricter and it backfired spectacularly. Now, lawyers and judges are desperately trying not to enforce these laws as the government scrambles to fix them.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://privatecitizen.press/episode/157
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The episode reminded me of an anecdote that is sometimes attributed to Sakharov, but I doubt the correctness of this attribution.

With a team of Soviet engineers, I came to Germany (DDR) to get to know their technologies better. We were visiting a factory, and I was watching a worker operate a complex machine-tool with great skill. A buzz signaled lunchtime, and I was surprised to see the worker simply turn the appliance off and walk away. I made a point to return to that place by the end of the lunchtime, and I witnessed the worker coming back to the machine, moving the cutting head away from the workpiece, removing both the workpiece and the cutting head, that were obviously damaged by stopping the machine while they were in contact, throwing them into the trash bin, installing the new cutting head, and signalling a master to readjust the machine. While waiting for the readjustment, the worker took out his cigarettes and walked out for a smoke. I followed him.
“You look like a person who knows your trade very well”, I said to him as we smoked together. “Obviously, you could have moved the cutting head away from the workpiece before powering the machine down. It would have saved the workpiece made of expensive alloy, it would have saved the expensive cutting head, and would have allowed you to just go on working after the lunch without any need to readjust the machine. I’m sure you know all that, so why did you just stop the machine the way you did?”
“It’s in the manual, I had to have the training and sign the paper. The manual says: when the lunchtime signal or the end-of-shift signal sounds, all machine-tools must immediately be powered off, so that’s what I did”, he said.
“But you do understand that the manual is stupid in this regard, and you save time and money for the factory if you disobey it?”
“I do”, he said. “But if I disobey it, the idiot who wrote it will not be fired, and will keep on writing stupid manuals.”

The law seems to be that manual here, and the DA and the judge in the same position as the worker. Too bad it’s a human life that gets broken instead of a piece of metal…

I once had a conversation with a very intelligent person who argued that monarchy was the best possible government system. Among his theses was this one: no law is perfect, and there always will be situations when obeying the law obviously violates justice and common sense; the monarch has the power to override a law and thus do justice in such a case; in a democracy, that’s not possible. While I don’t completely buy this argument, I find it a good point to think about.


That’s a very good point. The laws being passed over here indeed make me think of the Soviet system quite often now. Relatively stupid people are making laws because they follow an ideology and because they confuse this ideology with actually doing the right thing.

There is also the unfortunate effect that the worker could get fired for disobeying the manual. Sometimes, when a person has created a target of themselves for management, it is something as small as this that can be the end of them. By disobeying that rule, they save the company both time and money, but they also knowingly break a rule that they have signed off on as understanding. Especially in a unionized environment, where it takes more to fire an employee, these kinds of things can be very dangerous. It is very hard to get disciplined for stupidity when you are following the written letter of their law.

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Even more so for the judge and the DA, indeed.

I would content that this is very specifically a factor for the North American union environment. Over here in Europe, unionisation does not work like this at all. But then, our unions also didn’t get taken over by mobsters. :laughing:

Don’t get me wrong, unionisation has many issues. But if anything, it would protect an employee from something like this over here. At least if it is clear that the company is using the letter of the law, so to speak, to defeat the spirit of it.