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,
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
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
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