Photo courtesy of InfoWidget via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.
In the newer version of the board game Balderdash, a category exists on “laughable laws,” for which players must complete the law in a believable way to earn points.
It so happens that the believable, in this case, is often quite absurd.
Though the laughable laws in Balderdash aren’t sourced transparently, they aren’t a stretch from the truth: many outdated and absurd laws really do remain on the books, in the US and elsewhere.
Some are goofy; some are oddly specific. Other types of absurd laws, however, can betroublesome to keep, yet difficult to repeal.
Absurd laws: The weirdest of weird
Here are some of the most ridiculous existing laws we could find, the majority of which are not enforced:
In the US
- California: One cannot eat a frog that died during a frog-jumping contest
- Massachusetts: The National Anthem can only be played in full; cannot be danced to
- Wisconsin: Cheese must be highly pleasing; margarine can’t be served
- Virginia: Sex is prohibited to everyone, except married couples — seriously
In the UK
- Postage stamps of the monarch can’t be pasted upside-down
- One cannot ride a taxi if they have the plague
- Salmon can’t be handled under “suspicious circumstances”
Though we couldn’t find links to the exact legislature for non-English speaking countries, some examples rumored to be true are:
- Brazil: Watermelons may not be bought or sold
- New Zealand: No roosters are allowed in hot air balloons
- Thailand: One can’t leave their home without their underwear
The bigger problem[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”WKp02fVq3F1VjdNxd6sF1GiceVdlvIa1″]For the most part, obsolete laws are fairly innocent, so long as they aren’t enforced. Unfortunately, some can be used unfairly or selectively: for example, laws in California against sleeping or loitering might target the homeless, but not the average park-goer.
Some outdated laws are also contradictory to constitutional rights. For example, laws that disallow profanity in public may infringe on the right to free speech, and laws preventing “idiots” from voting (on the books in several states) contradict federal law.
Other old laws are less silly in phrasing, but no less absurd in practice, upholding a rigid status quo that prevents adaptation and critical review.
Why not just repeal them, you ask? Unfortunately, repealing a law can be even more difficult than passing it in terms of process, complexity, and effort. It’s also costly and time consuming to weed out obscure laws, and rarely a priority compared with more pressing matters.
Though obsolete and absurd laws aren’t always harmful, it’s unfortunate that old laws, once passed, stick around like embarrassing and cumbersome ghosts of the political past.
For federal legislation, lawyer and author Philip K. Howard proposes via the Atlantic several sunsetting solutions — these would require that the usefulness of old statutes be reviewed, and if necessary, improved or removed, after a certain amount of time to keep up democratic efficiency, which some other countries have done successfully.
Such solutions could potentially work on a state level, too. But as long as there are other priorities, it’s likely laws will continue piling on, while the antiquated ones get buried alive.