Dorothy Sayers and Laws of Inheritance

I’m trying, again, to expand the subjects on which I write to get away from politics, economics, and theology.  So here goes.  Friends know my self therapy reading is British murder mysteries.  Of course there are dead bodies to contend with and crimes to be solved, but I’m not interested in thriller mysteries that wallow in as much graphic gore as possible while taking the hero through as many  cliff hanging adventures as an old Saturday matinee movie serial.  One author stands out as a favorite, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) who wrote in and about the interwar years.  Her command of the English language is superb.  She is honest about the conditions and prejudices of English life in those years, but she doesn’t sensationalize it.  Her works are sprinkled with references to and citations of classical literature.  Her ability at writing dialogue knows no equal.  Her cast of regulars develop, mature, learn, and so do occasional characters within the limits of a few hundred pages.  Each story demands that the reader examine a series of ethical questions in the process of solving the crimes.  Indeed she is a gifted theologian, as is known through some of her other writings.  Her principal hero, Lord Peter  Wimsey, is both Prince Hal and Falstaff, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, or, as she herself said, Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster.

Right now I’m reading Unnatural Death, which is set in 1926.  In it our hero and friends are discussing the laws of inheritance, and a new law passed in 1925 that was supposed to clarify and simplify the complicated array of statutes and case law that had been cadged together over the previous several centuries.  Wimsey said. “I know what an Act to make things simpler means.  It means that the people who drew it up don’t understand it themselves and that everyone of its clauses needs a law-suit to disentangle it.”

What was true in 1925 England remains true in our own time.  Who has not heard or said that over regulation is one of our biggest problems?  What lies underneath the complaint is the greater reality of redundant, unclear regulation administered through Kafkaesque inefficiency by staff who do the best they can given the material they have to work with.  And what is that material?

It is the law.  The well intentioned, probably necessary law, as written by legislators and their staffs who have little understanding of the complexities required to implement it, even though well aware that they will exist.  Combine that with intentional underfunding, and reliance on the courts to sort things out, and ‘voila,’ we have modern inefficient government bureaucracy.  It’s popular to blame tax and spend big government loving Democrats, but recent history suggests that small government Republicans have been the greater contributors to growing the size of government while masterminding increased deficits.  Let’s just say it’s been a team effort that, in recent years, has been joined by the tea party gang intent on mucking everything up by their know nothing libertarian opposition to everything.

I suppose it should reassure us that the British parliament of 1925 was no better, and the nation survived, even prospered, in spite of two world wars.  As long as we are drawing on them as an example, it might be wise to remember also that the British Empire, on which the sun never set, has become Great Britain, first among equals in a commonwealth of independent nations, and may soon find itself reduced to Little England, one nation among three or four competing for its place on two rather small islands.  Empires come.  Empires go.  So might America’s empire.  I don’t think it has much to do with laws the framers don’t understand, and the courts have to untangle, but it may have to do with public distaste and discouragement with governments whose best efforts at doing good simply add to the pathology of bureaucracies trying their best to implement what legislators enacted into law without understanding how it would work.

Dang.  This began as commentary on the writing of Dorothy Sayers, and look where it ended up.  I’ll try again.

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