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A rough definition of a "knee jerk law" would be:

  1. Something bad happens
  2. An outrage is raised by the media
  3. A law is passed banning/changing/attacking the bad thing while the outrage is ongoing

An example of a "knee jerk law" would be the Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001, which gave extremely broad powers to the executive in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Is there a technical term in political science for such laws?

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10 Answers 10

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The term moral panic is similar to what you're talking about, although moral panics tend to be be sustained, rather than just a momentary response. There's also the phrase "Never let a crisis go to waste", which is the idea that crises can be exploited to push an agenda. There's also "Hard cases make bad law", which is somewhat related.

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  • You make a good point that moral panic may not be the most accurate term since it tend to be long-lasting, whereas the "knee jerk" law OP described tend to be highly situation-based and short lived. Aug 29 at 2:42
  • I'm not sure that "moral panic" would refer to the law, although it certainly may define the situation in which such a law would be passed.
    – Bobson
    Aug 29 at 17:50
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    @QuantumWalnut situation-based, sure, but short lived? Isn't the PATRIOT Act still in effect? Aug 31 at 5:36
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Jasen almost had it, except the term sometimes used is reactive lawmaking. Some examples of usage

Reactive law-making does not typically make for good law, and parliament should resist the calls to use the terrorist attacks in Paris to make further changes to anti-terrorism laws.

  • A longer UK academic paper even speaks of "reactive treaty making" in a international context, as the counterpart to the domestic equivalent.

  • Two Israeli academics writing on a German blog (in English though) argue that most international law is "reactive".

It's not an incredibly common/established term though. Also "reactive" carries a less negative connotation than "knee jerk", in my impression.

An American (I think) book author suggests that emergency lawmaking might be the preferred synonym in the US context, and one can certainly find similar usage in other US writings. (Probably the same caveat applies to this not being an incredibly widespread term either.)

That book also uses crisis-driven legislation as a synonym, but most other usage of that term [I can find] appears to refer to the 2008-09 (financial) crisis and the legislation (or regulations) it entailed. But I suppose one can use it more broadly. There is one paper that uses it in a slightly different sense:

For over seven decades the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 has served as the model of crisis-driven legislation, but this process could just as aptly be called tragedy-driven.

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Speaking broadly this is demagoguery, though I'm not sure there's a word for an individual act of demagoguery. The US Founding Founders tried to limit the impact of such inflammations of public mood, but (obviously) didn't account for the (future) influences of mass media and social media.

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  • The Founding Fathers did have their own mass media in the form of pamphlets (ex. Common Sense by Thomas Paine) and newspapers. Not as pervasive everywhere but the same idea.
    – qwr
    Aug 28 at 23:49
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    Not quite. The act of demagoguery creates the political climate/support for the "knee jerk law". The asker is asking about a label that applies such laws themselves.
    – David
    Aug 29 at 23:20
  • @qwr: Yes, and they based a lot of their constitutional safeguards on the slow spread of information from such media. The Senate, for instance, was meant to grind slowly through procedure to let the emotional pressure behind irrational bills dissipate, because no one could keep the population at fever pitch across weeks or months using broadsheets and an information distribution speed of about 20 miles a day. By contrast, the far right has been kept at fever pitch since maybe 2007 through constant bombardment on instantaneous media; that just undercuts the principle. Aug 30 at 3:29
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If you want a term that's not a metaphor.

A reactionary law.

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  • Can you elaborate on this term or present real-world examples of its usage? In politics, reactionary also refers to wanting to go back to some prior state of society. (How) does that fit with the description in the question?
    – JJJ
    Aug 30 at 22:11
  • @JJJ isn't the description you are giving just a rephrasing of the question? If an event that happens is seen as a change for the worse, then any attempt at restoring status quo is reactionary. A law removing the effects of a harmful event, or pre-emptying such an event from happening again, is an attempt at restoring the pre-event state of affairs. Aug 31 at 2:08
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    @DmitryRubanovich I'm not sure. I think the question describes a reaction to some one time event (e.g. a terrorist attack which was given as an example in the question). I think reactionary refers more to an ideology that strives to go back a state before a big societal change (I would associate that with something bigger like a revolution or a civil war after that societal change has mostly been completed). That's just how I imagine it, maybe this term does fit the question description, but I'm not sure.
    – JJJ
    Aug 31 at 2:12
  • @JJJ Hmm, maybe it's subjective. An attempt to go back to some previous state, seen as status quo, can turn radical or even revolutionary if it overshoots the target. But there is never going exactly back. So the decision on how far to push the change is subjective. Aug 31 at 20:12
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I am not sure that there is one in English.

I live in Austria, and the term we use for this is "Anlassgesetzgebung". "Anlass" means occasion or cause. "Gesetzgebung" means legislation.

The German-language Wikipedia claims that in Germany, they use the terms "Ad-hoc-Gesetzgebung" or "Gelegenheitsgesetzgebung" (Gelegenheit = opportunity).

I don't know if there is an equivalent term in English or any other language.

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    The German language terms you mention seem to be too neutral/technical. The question here rather describes something where the passed law is used to pass a particular agenda and the anlass is only used to whip up sufficient support. That might be a specific subset of what you describe.
    – Trilarion
    Aug 28 at 19:59
  • Ad hoc law is good!
    – Rusi
    Aug 29 at 3:31
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    @Trilarion I don't know about "too neutral". I grew up in Austria, and the term Anlassgesetzgebung seems to only ever come with the smell of populist, short-term politics. Yes, the term itself is kind of technical, but not once have I heard a politician use it to describe anything else than the politics of their opponents ;)
    – xLeitix
    Aug 29 at 7:02
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    As a native German speaker, I too think it's not necessarily neutral. It depends a bit on context, but if you describe the passing of a law as 'just being Anlassgesetzgebung' it's very discrediting.
    – Mookuh
    Aug 29 at 7:59
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    The Dutch word Gelegenheidswetgeving is an exact literal translation of the German term and is used in The Netherlands, Suriname and the (Dutch speaking part of) Belgium. And I'm fairly certain a variant of it appears in South Africa as well.
    – Tonny
    Aug 30 at 11:33
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It's perhaps not what you have in mind but many countries have enacted law in the face of a threat to the state's authority from serious criminals or subversives and called them names like Emergency Powers Act.

These acts would have in them a review date or a security assessment conditionality to assure citizens that they were not empowering a security state.

But maybe what you have in mind is something more like acts enacted after a civil disaster, e.g. a construction failure or a workplace disaster. In these cases the final act is seldom knee-jerk as there is usually a long public investigation and opportunity for dangerous builders and factory owners to smuggle their safety standard back onshore.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 provoked public outrage but there was no knee-jerk (i.e. immediate) reaction in terms of new legislation. That all had to wait for Wagner and Smith to milk the public outrage to push their own political careers - without putting some of their business supporter in trouble with factory inspectors.

Not surprisingly legislators tend to put themselves first in matters of immediate legislation. The David's Law was pushed after a UK MP was murdered by an Islamist extremist who used social media to spread his hate agenda.

The technical term will perhaps have more to do with the congressional/parliamentary procedure under which a new act may be given immediate priority over all other acts tracked into the legislative pipeline rather than the nature of the demand for such an act.

In Ireland it's called emergency legislation but I don't know enough about these procedures internationally to help you further.

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According to the Lao Tzu all laws are to some extent "knee-jerk" laws:

The more laws and restrictions there are, The poorer people become.
The sharper men's weapons, The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are, The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations, The more thieves and robbers.

Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.

Tao Te Ching 57

What you call knee-jerk laws I call after-the-fact laws: Something bad happens. Public is upset. Laws are instituted. But the context which generated the law is already past tense!

Sliding slightly south from Lao Tzu in India there is no single word for 'law' but two with very different connotations -- dharma and karma. Both get translated into English as 'law': So Manu's dharma-shastra is Manu's law book. And 'karma' is law of cause and effect. It seems a bit strange (at least to us easterners) to conflate these two -- natural law and moral law.

Putting Lao Tzu above into Indian format we get : "Pay more attention to karma -- how everyone acts out in the only way they know how to act out -- and the need to strive to be dharmic (moral, ethical, religious etc) correspondingly diminishes."

On the other side the slide downhill desribed by Lao Tzu has these analogues in the IT world

One can make the program so simple, there are obviously no errors. Or make it so complicated, there are no obvious errors

C.A.R Hoare

[Characterization of a fail safe system]

When a fail-safe system fails it fails because it fails to fail safe

So don't know if there is standard term, inspired by the picture of doing a diagnosis from a post-mortem the term I'd use is: Post-mortem law

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    You seem to be missing what appears to be a key point of the question which is the publicity surrounding the event in question.
    – Joe W
    Aug 28 at 13:31
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    I guess the publicity aspect is not captured @JoeW <shrug>. Nevertheless I would claim it matches the question much closer than 'demagoguery' or 'moral panic' both of which have no element of changing the law which to me is much more the key point. In any case a downvote with explanation is always better with than none. So thanks!!
    – Raveesh
    Aug 28 at 14:26
  • I would also argue that there are plenty of laws that get made that have nothing to do with things that have happened let alone bad things.
    – Joe W
    Aug 28 at 14:44
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    @JoeW Every law is intended to make something happen or to prevent, discourage something happening. What kind of exceptions are there? Of course to see these you may have to see the larger context: Eg. "You must pay 15% of your income in tax" The "happen" part is not here but in the other parts of the statute book where you will find: "The IRS (or whatever such) is authorized to do xyz to those who dont comply"
    – Raveesh
    Aug 28 at 14:56
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    And if you follow that logic laws can be made before something happens and not as a reaction let alone a "knee-jerk" reaction to something. The question is asking about laws that are made in reaction to events that get a very large amount of public attention and a demand to do something about that event.
    – Joe W
    Aug 28 at 15:15
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There is apparently an aphorism related to this, hard cases make bad law. Of course, it being an aphorism, different interpretations are possible, but the cited SCOTUS pronouncement seems relevant:

The expression dates at least to 1837. It was used in 1904 by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Its validity has since been questioned and dissenting variations include the phrase "Bad law makes hard cases", and even its opposite, "Hard cases make good law".

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made a utilitarian[clarification needed] argument for this in his judgment of Northern Securities Co. v. United States (1904):[4]

Great cases like hard cases make bad law. For great cases are called great, not by reason of their importance... but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment.

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    I think "cases make law" is about case law, not legistltion.
    – Jasen
    Aug 29 at 3:08
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In aviation, it is possible to find the phrasing that "most of the aviation safety rules are written in blood". This is because a new rule is usually added after the accident happens, in order to prevent the further accidents like that. This is not seen a very wrong approach.

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  • That sounds like a very high-cost trial and error. It probably doesn't describe the mode of action described in the question because it's not radical enough. But being accustomed to trial-and-error can motivate radical responses to severe events, as a way to overcorrect. Aug 31 at 20:23
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A neutral term for this in politics is Communitarianism (not to be confused with Communism or Communalism). Communitarianism is a general belief that a person's personality is molded by the community more so than the individual themselves and that because of this, laws should be written so the community promotes good ideas and morality.

Communitarianism is sort of a center political issue as it can be exhibited in both sides of a political debate. For example, in the United States, when discussion of how to stop mass shootings, one side might take issues with the availability of guns in American Society and how we need more laws that restrict access to guns, while the other side will often cite points about how many mass shootings are the results of poor mental health services in the United States OR how American society has been eroding the importance of Fatherhood (many recent mass shooters had no father figure in their lives).

Which ever side you come down on, both argue from a point of view that the problem is societal and not individual... that there is someone, other than the guy who shot a bunch of people, who is to blame for the tragedy and that if the laws could cure what causes this, we'd see a drop.

Other issues where this was seen to not work was the Prohibition Era. The thinking was that Americans drink a lot, drinking has negative effects on society, and we should ban alcohol from being consumed. It didn't work and actually had the opposite effect of people drinking more and due to the lack of regulatory controls on the supply of any illegal good, more dangerously. It didn't stop crime, but made it a golden age for organized crime in the United States. But the solution was Communitarianism laws in action - if society can be more moral than individuals can be more moral.

And the laws need not be bans... Smoking is bad for you. Drinking is bad for you. Too much sugar is bad for you. Let's tax these products higher so you lose more money when you participate. The mockery of the idea is why many people refer to prostitution as "The World's Oldest Profession" despite almost every society in history having a negative view of people who sell themselves for sex, people still do it even when it's illegal.

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