Recently it was national “Pi” day and I posted something on Facebook (see below) about how the real importance of Pi is misunderstood. I explained that Pi’s primary importance is how it allows us to mathematically speak of “circle-ness” (or rotation or cycles) in a generic way that can be used “universally” without getting mucked up in the particular measurements of a specific circle or rotation or cycle. Anyway, this got me thinking about how that applies to law.
When our Constitution embraces ideas like “liberty”, “due process”, or “equal protection” it does so in generic terms precisely because it would be absurdly cumbersome to attempt to specifically describe each situation in which a debate might ensue about these ideas. The power of the idea is its universality without getting mired in the specifics of each situation. Just like Pi.
Very often something in law will read something like “reasonable efforts,” and people always question whether that’s too vague. The answer to that question that is this: if there’s a way to easily attach dates and specific activities then do it; but, if there isn’t a way to attach specifics (like the Constitution’s “due process under law” clause) they you simply cannot. That does not mean the power of the phrase is minimized.
What always amazes me is how it seems in modern law there’s an obsessive desire to find specific laws for every little thing. There’s no law that specifically allows you to legally blow your nose — but we all know we’re allowed to. And so on, and so on, etc., etc. Specific laws, when they do exist, do matter because if they exist they exists for a reason. However, in the big picture the amount of specific laws compared to general abstract laws is overwhelmingly low. There are many, many more general non-specific “laws” than there are specific ones. Law simply cannot codify every single nuance of human existence. The law must necessarily then be about principles that apply to a wide range of situations. So, just like Pi, the law needs principles that apply universally to all situations that don’t get strangled by a tangle of attempts to define every specific nuance of every single situation.
“Equity” comes to mind. Equity in law is a principle where a judge can make a ruling based on what’s fair. It’s as old an idea as any specific law ever created. Equity is the glue that brings it all together for a judge — through equity a judge can soar above the often counter-productive minutiae and find the fair solution. If there is a specific law on the topic it certainly is an object to be reckoned with, but it is simply one of the considerations … not the prime consideration. A failure to see this is a classic “not seeing the forest for trees” situation.
I’ve noticed a strange bias against the use of equity in arguing a case … like it’s somehow a last ditch “Hail Mary” of a losing argument. This is so unfortunate, and plain silly. It bears repeating that the fabric of law is overwhelmingly about general abstract ideas and not specific laws. So why are lawyers and judges so afraid of relying on equity? I think it has to do with the illusion of certainty — I think some of us hate open-ended thinking because we’d rather just be told what to do … it feels safer, more secure … more legal. Fine, but in law where we lawyers and judges are supposed to be somewhat developed in our thinking we should not be afraid to THINK and make use of time-tested principles such as equity or any other general legal principles.
Pi is served!
(None of this is to imply that through equity a judge should go against a specific law. But the general space between the specific laws is immense. I think of it like an immense cement foundation (equity) on which there is a comparatively minuscule amount of beams resting on that foundation. There is lots of room in that acre of cement foundation before you hit a beam!).
Below is my Facebook post:
So it’s national Pi day. Ever wanted to know what the hubbub is? Well I’m gonna tell ya.
The fact that Pi goes on forever is not the primary important part. Lots of numbers do that. (“e” is a profoundly important number and does the same thing). For the average person the endless decimal thing about Pi is TMI and irrelevant. Also, the fact that the Pi shows up in a lot of mathematical and physical phenomena is not mysterious … just like how carbon showing up everywhere is not mysterious. (It may reveal something but it’s not “mysterious”).
So here’s the skinny on Pi.
Pi is simply the ratio of a circle’s circumference to it’s diameter (how many times the diameter length “lays” around the circumference)… which happens to be ~3.14 for all circles — no matter how big or small the circle is. What Pi allows us to do is represent circularity/rotation/cycles in generic form for ease of use in equations. In that sense Pi is very analogous to percentages where we disregard the real numbers/ratios involved and instead speak of them in relation to 100 to standardize it … it’s a way to speak of all ratios in a way that ties them all together. Same with Pi, it enables us to speak of all circles by reference to something that ties them all together irrespective of their actual size or dimensions. Since the ratio of circumference to diameter is the same for all circles (~3.14, i.e., Pi) this allows us to mathematically speak of all circularity/rotation generically in the language/vocabulary of math.
Think of the word “equal” in the English language … we know nothing about the items being compared as “equal” but the concept of their equality is very handy in a system/language that aims to describe things with accuracy. Lot’s of general information with no specific information.
So with Pi there are no mysteries, just a damn clever idea.