Even in the most advanced countries, there is no lack of hare-brained legislators who put silly laws in the books.
It is said that Providence, Rhode Island, has a city ordinance forbidding the sale of toothpaste and toothbrushes to the same customer on a Sunday. Arizona state law stipulates that one individual is not allowed to possess six or more dildos. Indiana shows its concern for young women’s safety with its rule that any adult driver found to have a barefoot minor in his or her passenger seat may be arrested for statutory rape. While the island state of Hawaii does not allow people to put coins in their ears, landlocked Illinois forbids the consumption of food when a fire breaks out.
Europe may be renowned for its culture, but it also has its legal oddities. In September 2000, for example, the French town of Le Lavandou decreed that people who have not found a grave site for themselves are not allowed to die.
Taiwan’s political hacks and bureaucrats are notoriously out of touch with public opinion. However, when they pass and enforce laws that are harmful to society, it may not be such a laughing matter.
The Constitution 133 Alliance (憲法一三三實踐聯盟) was recently launched with the purpose of putting into practice the right of recall as provided for by Article 133 of the Constitution. By targeting out-of-touch and out-of-key legislators for recall by their constituents, the alliance seeks to break out of the pattern in which the nation’s citizens, who are supposed to be its masters, in reality only exert their sovereignty once every four years by casting a ballot. This campaign is certainly a welcome and refreshing development.
Vladimir Lenin, the leader of Russia’s October Revolution, once wrote: “What is a constitution? A sheet of paper with the people’s rights recorded on it. What is the guarantee of these rights being really recognized? It lies in the strength of those classes of the people that have become aware of those rights, and have been able to win them.”
In Lenin’s view, if there was a big difference between the law and reality, it meant that the constitution was bogus.
Confronted with the machinery of the state, be it the executive or the legislature, ordinary people must figure out effective ways of overseeing, molding and even countering and resisting it.
The idea of civil disobedience has become a hot topic for discussion in Taiwan. Whether it be Henri Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience, arising from free people’s conscience, God’s law and natural law, or that of liberals like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, based on the principle of constitutional justice, or the forms of empowerment or radical democracy of the post-democratic era — no matter how one approaches or understands it, it is necessary to find some kind of response.
The dignity of the law arises from the determination of the people.
Constitution 133 Alliance’s focus on the right of recall is just a start. The campaign may suffer defeat within sight of victory, or be ignored. If that is the outcome, even in the case of a right so clearly enshrined in the Constitution, there is hardly any point in considering other forms of progress associated with the post-democratic era. If that happens, the current administration’s insistence on “government in accordance with the law” — absurd and abhorrent as it so often is in Taiwan’s legal system — will likely be the butt of jokes by countries and societies whose laws may be silly, but are at least quite cute and harmless.
Lin Chia-ho is an assistant professor at National Chengchi University’s College of Law.
Translated by Julian Clegg