Laws are enacted in our present civilised society virtually every day; some days many laws are enacted, too many for anyone to read. It has become virtually impossible for a citizen to understand all the relevant laws that might apply to his or her conduct, transactions, habits and behaviour. There is primary, secondary and even tertiary legislation. There are laws upon laws, laws within laws, and laws about what is not within the law. In nine years the last Labour government managed to create 3,600 new criminal offences. The present Conservative government is also busy creating new criminal offences, not quite at the same rate, but with the same enthusiasm.
At one time the Judges of England understood that old laws could well serve modern purposes – “the categories of negligence are never closed” wrote Lord MacMillan, a Judge of the House of Lords, in 1932; the simple maxims of equity have been sufficient to provide certainty in law about complex trusts and competing interests. In the criminal law we did not need, until relatively recently, to exhaustively list all possible deviations or bad behaviour; the old concepts of assault, battery, consent, theft, treason, rape, murder and fraud were sufficient to keep most of the population cognisant of the laws required to enable them to go about their lives without undue state interference.
In every society there are many wrongs and many injustices, and not every wrong and not every injustice is something that can be remedied by laws. In fact numerous laws act as an excellent cover for corruption, because over complexity is a great refuge of the politicians who are mostly scoundrels.
Tacitus was a Roman politician, lawyer and historian, and, wrote corruptissima re publica plurimae leges which I construe as (with some poetic and philosophical licence) the more laws a government enacts, the more corrupt the government.