A recent Travel Stack Exchange question about an immigration provision in the federal code lead to a bunch of respondents noting that the law in question is simply not enforced, with one person openly disparaging it as “nonenforced and nonenforceable.”

Obviously there's a problem at some level (legal/moral/philosophical/practical...) at laws that are not enforced. But is that an impossible ideal? My question is therefore, have there ever been legal systems that have enforced all of their laws?

Edit: The question is not whether the police always catch the criminals, or whether any state has been sufficiently totalitarian to be aware of all crimes. What I'm curious about is a government that refrained from making laws that it couldn't plausibly enforce, or systematically removed laws that it turned out not to be able to enforce.

  • 1
    How big of a legal system do you require at the least? May 26, 2020 at 6:40
  • Ha! Let's say one that governs a town or city, at least. I did although consider specifying that any polity enforces all of its laws between the time of its incorporation and the time of the passing of its first law. Perhaps the intent of the question is clear, though.
    – adam.baker
    May 26, 2020 at 7:34
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    Sometimes laws are not enforced because there is a superior law that prevents its enforcement.
    – phoog
    May 27, 2020 at 6:01

2 Answers 2


Of course not

No enforcement by humans is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, therefore, lawbreaking that is unseen, beyond power or unknown is not enforced.

Further, as Terry Pratchet put it “The good are innocent and create justice. The bad are guilty, which is why they invent mercy.” Since everyone is a little of both, humans have always wanted their justice tempered with mercy. That’s why the executive, be it an ancient king or a modern police officer, has always had the right to turn a blind eye.


Notwithstanding the difficulty determining what constitutes an enforceable law, or cases of undocumented prosecutorial discretion. The Code of Hammurabi consists of 282 laws, all of which I would consider enforceable. Where they all enforced at all times? I don't think that will ever be possible to answer for any legal system, but common sense tells me that would be impossible for any notable system of laws.

  • Is there historical reason to believe that the Code of Hammurabi was actually always enforced? That's the question, not whether it could be enforced.
    – user6726
    May 26, 2020 at 16:07
  • @user6726 After the edit that is not the question. And even if it was, that would be impossible to answer as it would require knowledge of the state of mind of a whole lot of dead people that may have decided to not enforce laws. I address this in my answer. It is also answered in the answer by Dale M. May 26, 2020 at 17:02

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