Our law has no mind of its own. In times past, we have fancied law a product of the Deity, and we are still apt to depict it as something transcendent, or even broodingly omnipresent, if not divine. Some of our lawmakers maintain a tradition of donning garments befitting oracles when they utter their pronouncements. Needless to say, the reality is that rules flow out of the pens of mortal persons beneath the impressive robes, persons who must bend their mental efforts to many complex problems and tasks, all competing for their attention.

Half a century ago, the late Herbert Simon developed the theory of “bounded rationality” in connection with human decisionmaking. His insight was that the cognitive resources (like other resources) of human beings are finite and, accordingly, must be rationed. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all have to make hard choices about how to allocate our intellectual energies. We cope with cognitive deficits, Simon and his students elaborated, in a variety of ways—for example, by searching selectively through the exponential ramifications of our analysis; by settling on decisions that we find sufficiently good, even if not necessarily best; and by developing mental short-cuts (dubbed heuristics) to simplify cognitive tasks, thereby allowing us to arrive at decisions in a more frugal manner.

It was often said of K’ung Fu-tse: “If the mat was not straight, the master would not sit.” This is surely an outlook with which many American lawyers, and those who deal with them, are familiar today. Though there is, of course, something to be said for keeping the mat straight, especially in an area as specific and particular as the law, the refusal to sit because of minor discrepancies can lead to tired legs and a bad temper. In the legal context, this means that certain “mat-straightening” practices can lead to inefficient procedure, incomprehensible or purposeless laws, and, at worst, miscarriages of justice.

The American legal system, descended as it is from Hebraic, Roman, and British law, is, in spite of the genius of its framers, at times hopelessly mired in the muck of mat-straightening when it should be concerned with simply sitting and getting down to the business of justice. This is due not so much to flaws in the basic structure of the law, but to the immense over-complexity that is largely (though certainly not solely) a phenomenon of the modern era. These days, it seems that the simple purpose of the law has been completely obscured by the practice of it. Fortunately, though much of Western legal scholarship has ignored or simply not recognized this trend toward unnecessary complexity, in the East, particularly in China, political and social philosophers have been dealing with this exact kind of excessive insistence on convolution and bureaucracy for thousands of years. They know it as Confucianism.