What Do You Owe The Law?

 

shutterstock_254582680In some ways, I’m one of the nuttier libertarians on Ricochet, always willing to put in a good word for David Friedman and his anarcho-capitalist theories. But I’m also a law-and-order gal: when people come together, it’s easy for me to see that they benefit from agreeing to some rules to guide their conduct (one of the reasons I sympathize with anarcho-capitalists: they, too, believe that rulemaking is such a ubiquitous feature of human behavior that there is a market for law). Moreover, I’m a lawyer’s kid, which means I grew up thinking of due process as a moral good.

For many reasons, I attempt to cooperate with the law. When our home was burgled, though nothing expensive was stolen, I took extensive notes, with accurate hand-drawn pictures of stolen items, and spent several days’ worth of time trying to expedite police action on my case. Not because I thought I’d ever get my stuff back, but in hopes that, if I cooperated with the police quickly, the burglar might actually be caught, and other residents spared the pain we had just been through. Despite my efforts, it took half a year for the police to follow up. The police refused to accept my notes and drawings at the time the case was fresh, and, months later, when a police detective finally took interest, my family had bigger problems to deal with, and we no longer could spare time to help. The material I prepared for the police still sits, collecting dust, on a shelf, a casualty of bad timing.

Even the bohemian crowd I ran with in college made efforts to help the police when we could. We were, for the most part, science and engineering students – the squarest kind of bohemian. When a pervert was roaming the village, half-climbing through women’s windows at night in order to cop a feel, we offered our ground-floor apartment in a rickety, easy-to-break-into house to the police for a stake-out. In retrospect, perhaps this wasn’t a practical offer, but who am I to judge? All I know is we tried to assist them, but were told nonetheless that the police would take no action: it seemed that this fellow (and he was a fellow – I remember his knuckly, hairy hands hovering over me) would have to completely enter someone’s abode and do something even worse before the police would care. Or whatever “We can’t act until he escalates” means.

Even so, when we found a piping plover trapped in a water intake, we called the police again (animal control). The signage posted around the intake had warned of the dire consequences of entering without permission, after all. The police response – a piping plover is too small to shoot, “so it’s not our problem” – is one I almost sympathize with. Or would have, if the poor plover hadn’t gotten himself sucked into the water intake of a generally sleepy town. Moreover, when “Officer Friendly” visited our elementary school when we were kids, he assured us that policemen were friendly, the kind of guys who rescue kittens from trees, not cruelly mock citizens’ attempts to rescue injured birds. Well, the plover was rescued in the end, spirited away in the middle of the night by some college kids willing to break the law, climb into that intake, then transport an endangered species across state lines (undoubtedly a violation of the migratory bird act, too) to a shelter willing to care for the remainder of its natural life. In retrospect, a fine time was had by all (even the bird acquiesced to the long car trip with aplomb). Even so, it left our trust in the law just that much weaker.

I’ve reached the point where interacting with police – for any reason – unnerves me. As Theodore Dalrymple notes, the minor infractions of a basically law-abiding type like me offer bureaucratically-minded enforcers easy pickings. Nonetheless, my respect for the due process of law remains largely intact. Perhaps because I’m a lawyer’s kid. Or perhaps only because I’ve had the good fortune to avoid testifying in court.

When I read then, an account of someone blatantly lying to the court – and not to protect others’ reputations, either, but to defame them – it’s hard for me to sympathize. What reason could possibly be good enough to justify such behavior? According to many on this site, though – and people I assumed were even bigger sticklers for for the rules than I am – “keeping the baby I promised to someone else” may be one such reason. I realize I’m not a mother yet, but this surprised me. It leaves me wondering in what other ways the people who chide me for my “anarchic” libertarian ways might also believe that their own moral principles leave them above the law.

So I ask you, fellow Ricochetoise, what do you believe you owe the law? And what, specifically, do you believe that  you don’t owe the law?

When you know you’re breaking the law, how do you justify it to yourself? How do you justify others’ contempt for the law, like that of the woman who allegedly lied to the court to keep her baby?

Do you draw a distinction between ignoring the law for expedience (“I can’t get this permit, but I need to keep working anyhow”) and high moral principle? If you do, how, and if you don’t, why?

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  1. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Excellent article. I grew up respecting the police, have never had a serious disagreement with an officer. Some disappointments, as you with lack of response when I felt it was needed.

    • #1
  2. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    I believe jury nullification is one of our most important principles to wield against overambitious legislatures, prosecutors, and judges.

    I believe juries in some jurisdictions who refuse to convict based on the “he needed killin'” defense after hearing the evidence can be morally correct in doing so.

    I was flabbergasted when Mr. Eko felt guilty after killing the kidnappers in “Lost.” If you enter my home and try to drag off people against their will, I will kill you and I won’t lose any sleep over it. If you arrest me and charge me with a crime, I will exhibit as much contempt of court as I can muster. What will you do then—throw me in jail?

    In short, I agree: we need a minimal, consistent system for adjudicating disputes. But it’s vitally important not to confuse that with being right, especially with increasingly militarized police forces increasingly not even in the service of enforcing law-as-in-legislature, but law-as-in-unelected-alphabet-agency. The morons in Sacramento and Capitol Hill are bad enough, sure, but the ones I really worry about are the EPA, NSA, FTC, SEC…

    It’s no accident that I recently bought “Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America” and “The Living International Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget.” Panama and Malta feel like the front-runners for retirement. (Pace anonymous, Switzerland sounds awesome—partially because it’s hard to get in).

    • #2
  3. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    What do we owe them theoretically in a perfect world, or what do we owe them when they’ve become the enemies of liberty? The distinction matters quite a bit.

    • #3
  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    The King Prawn:What do we owe them theoretically in a perfect world, or what do we owe them when they’ve become the enemies of liberty?

    Yes.

    • #4
  5. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    In other words, KP, your opinions on either of the questions you raised are welcome here. As you say, the distinction matters quite a bit.

    • #5
  6. user_357321 Inactive
    user_357321
    @Jordan

    At the risk of sounding like a political philosopher, what do you mean by “the law”?

    Are we talking about a natural law, a statutory law,  or are we talking about rules?

    It seems to me that rules are meant to be broken, law is to be followed to the letter, and the natural law gets its due regardless of one’s attitude towards it.

    I think the law, at least the statutory law, is fundamentally amoral in practice.  Our legal system is more of a legal game (where each move on the board costs ~$10,000) than it is a set of moral precepts.

    Some law clearly flows from  moral tenets, such as laws against murder, rape, assault, fraud, theft, etc.  But these are probably not the laws we’re talking about.  We’re probably talking about rules, and what do we owe them?

    Violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act doesn’t cry to heaven.  Yet, even still, we roll out the same legal machinery to deal with those scofflaws.  And if you sell raw milk, well, we have a swat team for that blight upon decent milk-drinking society.

    Maybe what we really owe the law is reform.

    • #6
  7. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Jordan nailed it. He forgot /drops mic at the end though.

    • #7
  8. user_189393 Inactive
    user_189393
    @BarkhaHerman

    Excellent piece Midge.  I wish I could get my ex-cop brother-in-law to comment here. He worked in Baltimore (a-la-Wire) for 20 years, no less.

    My least followed laws in practice tend to be related to traffic / driving etc.  I can be a true rebel in that regard.  To the best of my knowledge, I tend to follow most other laws.  I stop at going out of my way to help the Police any more than I would help a fellow human being.  The line is drawn where the “special powers” of the police start.

    All laws in the end are about morality.  However there are some morals we all share (well most of us) while others not so much.  Both sides (left and right) use laws to impose their brand of morality.   This is why to me it makes sense to have less, not more laws.  My short list would comprise of non-aggression (Assault, battery, rape, Child abuse, domestic violence, fraud, child pornography(?), defamation, extortion, homicide, manslaughter, wire fraud) and property rights (Theft, larsony, arson, burglary, robbery, vandalism, kidnapping, embezzlement, credit card fraud / theft, identity theft, extortion, forgery, wire fraud). That’s it.

    • #8
  9. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Jordan Wiegand:Some law clearly flows from moral tenants…

    Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

    Tenets.

    Carry on.

    • #9
  10. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Barkha Herman:This is why to me it makes sense to have less, not more laws.

    Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

    Fewer laws.

    Carry on.

    P.S. Apparently I feel strongly about English usage laws.

    • #10
  11. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I think I might be one of those whose response on another thread led to this post. I’m a law-abiding citizen, but the law is a ham fisted tool. Regulation and the like have made it worse. When it comes to my children and grandchildren, however, I will do what is best for them no matter what the law says. And no law should allow a mother to sign over all rights to a child she’s never seen. Seeing her child can make all the difference.

    • #11
  12. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Jordan Wiegand:At the risk of sounding like a political philosopher, what do you mean by “the law”?

    Exactly. We want the rules we follow to carry moral weight. It’s rather deflating when they don’t.

    In my heart, I see distinctions between, say, simply clamming up in court, lying in court to protect another, and lying in court to destroy another, with the latter unquestionably violating any reasonable sense of “law” I can conceive of. Transporting a migratory bird across state lines, on the other hand, simply does not “cry to heaven” in the same way. Yet I live in fear of finding out that there’s no statute of limitations on the latter offense – that some day, I’ll be a great-granny in a nursing home, and some guy in shady glasses will come up to me, asking, “Ma’am, did you conspire to transport a migratory bird and/or endangered species across state lines seventy years ago?”

    I trust the mercy and humility built into the remnants of our common-law heritage much more than I do the “tender mercies” of the bureaucrats.

    • #12
  13. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    GG, sometimes our fingers just type the wrong spelling when in our thoughts we know perfectly well which word is meant. If I didn’t have a spell check, I couldn’t write at all. With my hearing impairments, I didn’t even learn to speek correctly until I was 8 or 9 years old. And I just misspelled speak. I have a tendency to spell words the way I think I heard them pronounced, and there are times even my spell check can’t find the correct spelling, so I have to use a different word.

    • #13
  14. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    synonym

    • #14
  15. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Barkha Herman:My least followed laws in practice tend to be related to traffic / driving etc.

    A while ago, at the shooting range, I lost my head for a sec and violated a range rule. Got yelled at. I’m grateful for that, because it was the kind of mistake that could have been dangerous, and I’ll never make that kind of mistake again.

    The experience jarred me a little more deeply, though, because I’ve always thought of myself as someone who follows the rules and colors inside the lines. I started paying attention, and it challenged my self-conception. Even though I am much more law-abiding than most, I discovered that I still break rules all the time.

    Most of the rules we encounter are traffic rules. My daughter recently earned her driver’s license, so I’ve been hyper-attuned to driving laws and driving safety lately. And the fact is that way too many people break the law routinely, in very dangerous ways.

    Every day I see reckless violations. Drivers running yellow (or if you’re honest, red) lights. Drivers turning right on red without stopping first — almost hitting pedestrians walking with the walk sign. Drivers who roll through stop signs. Pedestrians who walk against the signal at a busy intersection, or not in the crosswalk, putting themselves in danger. Excessive speed. Stand at any busy intersection in my sleepy town, and you will see numerous near-misses that would be avoided if people followed the law. Following the letter of the law matters when it comes to road safety.

    Meanwhile, I was driving on the highway at 6am this past Sunday. Every 3-4 miles was a state trooper who had pulled over a speeder. But visibility was clear, conditions were dry, and there was virtually no traffic on the road. It seemed as if cops were not fostering safety, but padding revenue.

    • #15
  16. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Without devolving into another anarchocapitalist discussion, and without going backwards to discuss whether representative government can ever be truly consensual (no one ever asks you directly, you know), I think it matters whether the system of law is participatory or not.

    If the system is participatory, then you owe obedience to the law or withdrawal. Or open warfare on the system. Obedience does not mean agreement and it does not mean refraining from lobbying for change. Of course no one is perfect and so perfect obedience is unlikely; of course law can be flawed so the obedience given to it will be flawed.

    If the system is not participatory, then you don’t owe anything – it’s being taken from you even if you would freely choose the same thing anyway.

    • #16
  17. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: So I ask you, fellow Ricochetoise, what do you believe you owe the law?

    To either obey it or willingly face the consequences of disobedience while (in the case of an unjust law) at the same time denouncing it.

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: And what, specifically, do you believe that you don’t owe the law?

    To do the government’s work for it without just compensation, as per the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.

    • #17
  18. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Son of Spengler:The experience jarred me a little more deeply, though, because I’ve always thought of myself as someone who follows the rules and colors inside the lines. I started paying attention, and it challenged my self-conception. Even though I am much more law-abiding than most, I discovered that I still break rules all the time.

    I think that describes a great many of us – certainly me. We aren’t scofflaws, but we follow laws imperfectly. Perhaps it’s the fact that so few of us are wholly innocent that makes the presumption of innocence – and the procedures meant to safeguard that presumption – so important.

    • #18
  19. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Quick note: “Argh!” is intended humorously. Having posted the first one, the second was even more tongue-in-cheek, only to be consistent, not out of actual frustration or because I’m perfect in word choice or spelling.

    That, and I found it funny in the context of a “law” discussion. :-)

    — Your friendly computer-scientist-physicist-son-of-two-teachers-ie-pedant-by-both-nature-and-nurture

    • #19
  20. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Perhaps it’s the fact that so few of us are wholly innocent that makes the presumption of innocence – and the procedures meant to safeguard that presumption – so important.

    4187Sp-Cb6L

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but when the average citizen unwittingly commits three felonies a day, you live in a police state.

    • #20
  21. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Gödel’s Ghost

    Barkha Herman:This is why to me it makes sense to have less, not more laws.

    Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

    Fewer laws.

    Carry on.

    P.S. Apparently I feel strongly about English usage laws.

    Except, that isn’t a law. The use of the word less to refer to countable items goes back to at least 1481, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

    The “rule” that fewer is for countable items and less is for uncountable quantities only goes back to 1770, and was wholly the preference (invention?) of a single author, Robert Baker, according to Merriam-Webster.

    If we accept Baker as the final authority on English usage, that means we’d also have to go back to using ſ instead of s.

    https://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/10-items-or-less-is-just-fine/

    • #21
  22. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @JudgeMental

    Misthiocracy:

    Gödel’s Ghost

    Barkha Herman:This is why to me it makes sense to have less, not more laws.

    Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

    Fewer laws.

    Carry on.

    P.S. Apparently I feel strongly about English usage laws.

    Except, that isn’t a law. The use of the word less to refer to countable items goes back to at least 1481, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

    The “rule” that fewer is for countable items and less is for uncountable quantities only goes back to 1770, and was wholly the preference (invention?) of a single author, Robert Baker, according to Merriam-Webster.

    https://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/10-items-or-less-is-just-fine/

    Don’t tell Son of Spengler!

    • #22
  23. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Popular entertainment teaches Americans that people regularly disregard law when family and loved ones are threatened, be it by criminals or by legal punishment (even when the laws are just). Experience leads me to believe this is an accurate portrayal of normal psychology.

    In a normal hierarchy of loyalties, family and friends are prioritized before nation and even before religion. The average person will twist himself in knots to preserve his most cherished personal relationships. People prefer concrete connections over abstract principles.

    That’s one reason ideologies reflect lifestyles more often than shape them.

    To say it’s normal is not to say that it’s justified. But the process of legislation should take practical norms into account.

    • #23
  24. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    I think we owe the law the benefit of the doubt, when there is doubt.  This is also how I generally approach people as well.  A lot of times, there is no doubt, so you can use good sense.  But in the absence of enough information, one should not assume that the law or law enforcement is up to mischief.  I typically have more than enough real problems to add things to my list I’m not sure about.

    • #24
  25. user_385039 Inactive
    user_385039
    @donaldtodd

    When the government takes property which is not the government’s property to take, and when the government refuses to let people use their own property, we have a problem.  The law works against the citizens.  Bad law.

    When the police were using a federal law to break into peoples homes, and then they were breaking into the homes of innocent people (and killing some of them without being liable to prosecution), the law works against the citizens.  Bad law.

    When Bill de Blasio decides that the police need to be reined in, so they back off on their policing which results in worse lives in certain portions of New York City, the mayor’s efforts work against the average citizen.  Bad idea.

    I know that we need police.  I am not an anarchist.  But I do watch the politics and think that in many instances the police cannot win.  They are damned if they actually try to protect us, and damned if they don’t.  And I see all of that while realizing that some police officers should not be police officers for any of several reasons.

    • #25
  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Aaron Miller:Popular entertainment teaches Americans that people regularly disregard law when family and loved ones are threatened, be it by criminals or by legal punishment (even when the laws are just). Experience leads me to believe this is an accurate portrayal of normal psychology.

    In a normal hierarchy of loyalties, family and friends are prioritized before nation and even before religion. The average person will twist himself in knots to preserve his most cherished personal relationships.

    True. Yet at the same time, people often find it much harder to outright lie in certain situation than they expected it would be. Our courts rely on this.

    Me, I can clam up and play dumb. Or, if I believe strongly enough that another moral obligation supersedes my obligation to the law, I find I can bend the truth… a little. But I find lying to the law outright, even when it would very much appear to be to my benefit to do so, exceedingly difficult – so difficult, in fact, that so far I have failed to do it, even when I intended to. I suppose this could be a moral weakness on my part. Yet we’re not generally raised to think of it as a moral weakness.

    • #26
  27. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    donald todd:I know that we need police. I am not an anarchist. But I do watch the politics and think that in many instances the police cannot win. They are damned if they actually try to protect us, and damned if they don’t. And I see all of that while realizing that some police officers should not be police officers for any of several reasons.

    It doesn’t help that law enforcement, and public service generally, attracts two kinds of people: genuine altruists who really do want to help the average citizen have a normal, peaceful existence in society, and power-hungry sociopaths who want to lord it over people who by default are questionable at best, “known” to be guilty a priori at worst. The problem is that the latter kind of person looks just like the former.

    • #27
  28. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    I feel no moral obligation to abide by any law that I disagree with.

    Practical obligations compel me to follow many laws that I disagree with.  But I do so grudgingly.

    • #28
  29. user_357321 Inactive
    user_357321
    @Jordan

    Gödel’s Ghost

    I believe jury nullification is one of our most important principles to wield against overambitious legislatures, prosecutors, and judges.

    A quick rundown on jury nullification, and why it’s basically impossible based on how we select juries, for anyone interested in the theory.  In the common law tradition, William Penn was the first example of jury nullification happening, and it being upheld by a superior court when the trial judge jailed some jurors for disobeying the judges instructions.  The jurors we’re freed, and his acquittal stood ultimately.

    Northern juries, for instance, also nullified slave convictions from runaway slaves, and occasionally juries would reject some prohibition convictions simply because they felt the law was unjust.

    So basically, yes, a jury can do whatever it wants and no one can stop them.

    • #29
  30. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Creepy Lurker:

    Misthiocracy:

    Except, that isn’t a law. The use of the word less to refer to countable items goes back to at least 1481, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

    The “rule” that fewer is for countable items and less is for uncountable quantities only goes back to 1770, and was wholly the preference (invention?) of a single author, Robert Baker, according to Merriam-Webster.

    https://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/10-items-or-less-is-just-fine/

    Don’t tell Son of Spengler!

    When people return to speaking English as they did in 1481, give me a call.

    • #30
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