Skip to main content
No. 1207:

Today, we see how laws were made to be broken. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Laws are odd things. They exist only to serve us and they can only serve us if we obey them. Yet it undermines society to obey anything without question -- law, authority, convention.

That came home to me dramatically last evening. A couple asked me to look at a small bridge where slow city traffic crosses a bayou in Houston's Heights -- an older neighborhood in a young city. This nice old bridge, built in 1922, is now being torn down and replaced. The present form was proposed by the grandfather of heart surgeon Denton Cooley, and it has an ornate concrete balustrade -- a railing formed of short classical pillars. The new bridge is to have a solid concrete wall with punched-out holes. No more turn-of-the-century elegance! Another survivor from a less hurried age is about to turn plain vanilla.

Now these two people have joined a campaign to fit the new bridge with modern copies of old balustrades. The copies would be fairly inexpensive, and steel-reinforced to provide the needed strength.

Federal law sets down design rules to protect motorists from driving off bridges. We need such protection, but as law-makers try to cover every eventuality, the law grows dysfunctional.

An old-style balustrade can legally be put on the new bridge, but the law demands redundant guard rails to keep cars from hitting it. So I walked the old bridge studying its balustrade. It was clean. No one had hit it in its 75-year history. But no matter! No matter that it's strong enough or that it's set away from the street by a sidewalk where it won't be hit. The law allows the balustrade only if its old-world grace hides behind steel tubing.

This small matter points up a large one. Everywhere we look laws are written to cover all imaginable cases. They constantly overspecify. The safety of our nuclear reactors, for example, has been legislated until new ones cost too much to build. And no one dares try to invent safer ones. I like to recite the maxim, "Never solve a problem that hasn't come up." That's how I avoid the mischief caused by solving problems out on some theoretical plane.

After World War I, a Czech author created a character, the Good Soldier Schweik. Schweik brought the German army to its knees by obeying orders literally. But he wasn't original. Taoist philosophy says you can conquer your enemy by cooperating with him.

Years ago, my father told me, "Johnny, laws were made to be broke." I puzzled over that for years. Now a minor contest over a decorative railing helps me understand. My father was telling me that societies only prosper while their laws are challenged. Accept the law as a given constraint, and life closes in. We end up living in a world where energy, transportation, medicine -- all suffer. And we end up without the frivolous decoration that we have to see out of the corner of our eye -- as we hurry past.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

I am grateful to Robert Deutsch and Mercedeh Shahbal for explaining the case for the balustrades on the Heights Bridge, and for providing background information about the problem and the law.