Among the quantitative constraints I mention that the area must be small enough so that the major highlights fit in a single person's head; on the other hand it must be large enough to provide intellectual food for at least a lifetime. (E.W. Dijkstra)

The most important questions in any area are: what are the primary sources of knowledge in this field? How much primary information is there in this area?

These questions are perfectly normal:
"How many words are there in Shakespeare plays/Etruscan language/Bible/...?"
"How many proteins X-Ray structures are known?"
"How many axioms are there in the Set theory?"

Now a question regarding the volume of US federal laws somehow hurts lawyers' feelings: How many lines of text in all currently active federal laws of US?

What is wrong with this question?


2 Answers 2


Because it shows a complete lack of understanding of how common law legal systems work

It may be an appropriate question for civil law systems where there is actually a code of laws that can be pointed to and the statement made "Here is the law" although, even there I am doubtful since it would not capture administrative and local law. Common law systems (derived from English law) don't have this - there is the law passed by legislature, administrative law, the law as decided by the courts and the law relating to issues that have not yet been litigated - the last of these are indeterminate - there is definitely a law about it its just that no one knows what it is until it informs a case.

In essence, it is akin to part your second question "How many words are there in ... Etruscan language?" The only sensible answer is "We don't know" - Etruscan is a dead language so we can be definitive about how many Etruscan words have been recovered (at a point in time) but we cannot say how many words there were.


I don't see anything wrong with that question, and in fact I voted it up. Granted, it touches on one of my pet interests.

I surmise from the comments (and other experience talking to practitioners) that there is some resistance among lawyers to drawing analogies between legal code and computer code. I might speculate that this is because law in principle should be deterministic, but law in practice falls abysmally short of that ideal. And lawyers are embarrassed by and/or tired of explaining that chasm.

  • I agree that there's nothing wrong with it, but it's just not very useful, especially in common law systems. The amount of legislation is possibly useful in making very coarse comparisons, but I do have trouble seeing what those comparisons would be.
    – jimsug
    Oct 28, 2017 at 12:35

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