The Perils of Positive Law

Just a couple days ago the New York City council voted to ban the practice by sanitation workers to sticker the window of vehicles that were violating the alternate-side street cleaning rules. Whilst the vehicle’s owner would still receive a parking violation fine, they are no longer allowed to punish drivers by defacing their vehicles with the hard-to-remove stickers. While I find the ban agreeable, I have a bone to pick with the general legislative approach.

One of the problems with positive law is that the mindset it encourages is antithetical to what should otherwise be a presumptive prohibition of aggression and the security of both property and personal liberties. Unlike the “negative” rights of common law, the legislative process of positive law will all too often err and enshrine legal principles that are unjust. This is not to say that legislators do not get it right sometimes– for example laws that prohibit murder, theft and fraud are all [potentially] perfectly just laws.

With a positive law mindset, actions that are not yet defined in the statutes lie in a grey area neither prohibited nor permitted “under the law”.  And later, if ever, when the statutes are codified, the result could be in having laws that don’t prohibit or permit enough, or in fact laws that prohibit or permit too much.  This is a problem inherent to a process that tries to encapsulate the entire range of possible actions and to explicitly codify them into the written law.

The presumptions now change- anything not explicitly forbidden is arguably permissible. Actions which are now prohibited lie beyond the reach of justice if they were carried out before the law was passed under the legal principle ex post facto. Of course it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way– laws that forbids theft and injury could already be understood to include all forms of theft, damage and injury without the codification of specific actions, i.e. “killing with a knife in the right hand using a stabbing motion”. What the positivist mindset encourages is the tendency to look at the codified word as the source of justice, so that one could then hair-split it so that the actual action is not specified and thereby not prohibited.

That said, property defacement should be considered a forbidden action (regardless of the actual codified law) and therefore there was no actual need for a specific law to ban the stickering practice. Instead the government could have enforced the already existing laws against property defacement to stop this punitive, vindictive crime.