Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Programmatic Law

Law is one of the most inefficient processes of modern society. Still it's effective, all things considered. The inefficiency lies in the fact that figuring out what is legal or not is a complicated process that involves lawyers. Originally law was supposed to be simple enough to be interpreted by jurors but now you almost have to be a jurist to understand the law. This inefficiency is even used as a bargaining chip in many cases with the threat of "tying this up in court for years."

How is that even possible? Law is not supposed to be obtuse, yet it gets that way.

The law's complexity has driven the need for a highly sub-specialized class of professionals, that rather than be advocates or expert advisors are more like translators to the arcane practices and language of law.

Have you ever read a contract and wondered what it meant? Then had it explained to you and you couldn't figure out why they didn't just said that, in plain language rather than the page of small print?

Most laws don't really require this level of obfuscation and in fact might work better if like a virtual game world they were coded in programmatic language rather than coded in lawyer-speak.

For example many laws have time deadlines for the filing of paperwork, and many times this deadlines are not only artificial, they are hard to find out with out some extensive knowledge of law. Local, State and Federal layers add to a complexity that only paid professional can dedicate the time to learn. I was watching a court-tv program and was blown away when a former tenant successfully sued her previous landlord because even though no one disputes that the tenant wrecked the apartment the landlord failed to give a written notice of the damages, so was ordered to return the deposit. I thought, how was he to know? There is no website you can go to and check the procedure and only a trained lawyer can read and understand law.

Interestingly, the parallels between law and programming are huge. But programming has a huge advantage: it's interactive. You can simulate circumstances and look at the results and learn from that.

However, the biggest advantage of doing law in programmatic way is that you can model it, experiment with it and do test cases in a far quicker way than you would otherwise. That way you could find out what law best achieves the intent of the law, rather than having to pass it to find out.

Seeing law this way requires a re-framing of what law is. Laws are the rules of a game, a game that society plays but not anything more than that. They are how things work only because we agree on them. Laws serve society or at least they are supposed to, society is not supposed to serve the law. By re-framing the law you can then tinker with it more effectively, in type of sand-box before having to pass it.

As people become more and more familiar with programing languages, many of the conditions and caveats of the law might be clearer when expresses in programming language.

Right now programs like Turbo Tax do that to an extent, but there is no reason why this language cant be added to the way laws are made.

Let's take the Estate Tax for example. In Japan Estate Taxes are really high, if you wanted to see how a high Estate Tax would affect people,  you could code it rather simply.

if your_assets > 1_000_000
 pay (your_assets - 1_000_000) / 2 

So here if your assets are over $1 million you pay %50 tax on the amount over it. Simple enough, the pseudo-code is actually cleaner, as it's clear the first $1 mil is tax excluded.

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