Contempt for the law

As I am taking a break from sightseeing and visiting relatives here in Israel, I thought I’d answer a question raised by one of my regular readers, Patrick Ritchie, in a comment a few weeks ago.

Patrick had noticed what seemed a contradiction in my posts and asked me about it. First, he noted my disgust at university officials in South Carolina who were refusing to follow a law requiring them to teach students about the Constitution because they thought it “inconvenient.”

Patrick wrote, “In the post above you state, ‘It might inconvenient, and the law itself might be foolish, but it isn’t up the administrators to decide this. They should be fired.'”

He then cited an earlier post in which I celebrated the Connecticut gun owners who were refusing to register their weapons under that state’s new very oppressive and senseless gun control law. There I had written that “When the law has contempt for freedom, then the only answer is contempt for the law.”

Patrick then asked, “I would appreciate it if you could elaborate on how, in your mind, these two situations are different. More specifically: when (if ever) do you think it is OK for citizens to disregard or break the law?”

First, let me explain how the two situations differ. In the first case, the South Carolina law placed requirements upon the way the government-funded university operated, requirements specifically aimed at the university’s administrators who are also government employees. The law was designed to make sure that government did what the public wanted it to do, which in this case was the teaching of the Constitution.

In the second case, the law was written to impose restrictions on the freedoms of the citizenry itself. Here, the government decided that tens of thousands of ordinary law-abiding citizens were now potential criminals, merely because they happened to own a legal item, a gun.

This distinction alone partly answers Patrick’s next question. There is nothing wrong with using the law to place limits on the behavior and power of government employees and elected officials. It is in fact exactly what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were designed to do, limit the power of the government so that the people and the states would remain free. If those employees or officials don’t like the restrictions, they can leave the government and find other work where the restrictions will not apply. And if they refuse to follow the law, then they should be removed from office immediately, so that others can enforce the law properly, as written, and as required by the very oaths these officials take when they are either hired or elected.

Using the law to restrict the freedom of law-abiding citizens, however, is a far different thing. Even if such a law isn’t unconstitutional, it is still morally repugnant. Moreover, the citizens can’t escape the law. If it is unjust or restrictive of their basic freedoms or rights, they can’t quit the country. The only way they can keep their rights is to defy the law, until they can replace the legislators who passed it and have the new legislators repeal it.

Then there is the quality of the law itself. The law is a fundamental component of the social structure of a nation. It helps to define how we act as a society. Thus, no law should be written sloppily or without much thought. The consequences can be terrible. At a minimum, a badly written law that imposes rules that are basically impossible to follow will cause the citizenry to have contempt for it.

For example, in the 1970s, shortly after the first oil shortage, Congress passed a foolish law that capped the speed limits on all American roads to 55 mph, even though the nation’s interstate system was designed for vehicles driving from 65 to 75 mph. The law was unrealistic. It was impossible for drivers to drive their cars at 55 mph. Instead, they all broke the law, which taught them contempt for that law. In addition, the law encouraged contempt for the police, the enforcers of the law. The police could literally pick and choose who they wished to give speeding tickets to, since everyone was speeding. If you got a ticket you felt abused, since as you sat there on the side of the road you knew that everyone zipping past you was doing exactly the same thing that you had done, and was getting away with it.

The consequence was a contempt for the law and contempt for the police. And no one benefited, since cars were not moving at 55 mph anyway. It was a bad law that should never have been passed. It was passed, sadly, because the members of Congress at the time wanted to do something, didn’t think very carefully about what they were doing, and therefore produced a law that failed.

Thus, the actions of the citizens of Connecticut seems eminently reasonable to me. They are defying an unjust law, that has made ordinary citizens criminals and that threatens their freedom to defend themselves. In addition, they are defying a badly written law that really can’t be enforced. Based on my reading, Connecticut apparently doesn’t have the resources to regulate gun ownership as demanded by this law. And because the law can’t work, the citizens ignore it.

So, to summarize, I believe that it is entirely understandable and somewhat acceptable for citizens to disregard or break the law when that law is oppressive to honest individuals doing nothing wrong, accomplishes nothing other than to increase the power of government officials, and is written so badly it can’t be followed, even if everyone tried as hard as they could.

I should also note that much of what I have written above was illustrated quite nicely by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The English king and his parliament were imposing unrealistic and oppressive laws on innocent Americans. Jefferson lists them in great detail in the Declaration and then uses this list as the final justification for severing the link between the American colonies and the British Empire.

Finally, I must add one last point. I dislike intensely the idea of disregarding the law, even if it is oppressive. The law might be an ass, as Dickens once wrote, but without it we do not have civilization. Just as we should be very careful about passing laws nonchalantly, the citizenry should be equally careful about defying the laws. Carelessness in either can cause great heartache and much misery.

Much better to not pass such laws in the first place, to treat the law with respect, and to take great care about the laws you write and pass so that the law never becomes contemptible at all.

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13 comments

  • Jwing

    Even Madison stated that the constitution is not a suicide pact.

  • Cotour

    I think your point that politicians want or need to “do” something is where things tend to run off the rails. Something being better than nothing being the logic that is embraced by people that are “in charge”. So if they are perceived as doing nothing, especially by themselves, how can they justify their existence?

    Obamacare is something, that’s like choosing the devil that you know. You have still chosen the devil.

    Sometimes doing nothing is the solution, nothing also being an action. An intelligent man may be smart but being smart does not indicate wisdom.The Founders were smart and they had wisdom and they fully understood the nature of man related to power and what was needed to counter act that nature.

  • Joe

    The way I see it, president Obama and AG Eric Holder have displayed nothing but contempt of the law,an open free society demands well written laws that can be reasonably followed, but when you go after the state of Arizona and sue them for making a law that mirrors federal law with regard to illegal immigration, you are usurping the law, this makes it a dangerous place to be when laws are so routinely disregarded, when all of a sudden a new sheriff shows up and wants to enforce said law, this does nothing but create havoc in society. These elected and appointed officials owe it to the electorate to comply!

    • Cotour

      Obama and Eric Holder are intent on pushing presidential power and the ability of the Congress to counter balance that power to the max, get use to it. Their agenda is a kind of Libertarian, Marxist, socialist, black reparations kind of philosophy.

      There really are consequences to elections and these is them. Now let the Republican party competently represent a different alternative for the American people. Looking at the Arizona Republicans and their attempt to basically legalize discrimination based on religious rights, I do not see that happening. Very bad PR.

      • mpthompson

        Everyone “discriminates” on a daily basis. It touches all aspects of life including where we live, where we work, where/if we worship, what we watch for entertainment, who our friends are and so on. Having free will and the ability to act on it is a fundamental civil right and “discrimination” is perfectly legal in the vast majority of social interactions. The Arizona law is a manifestation the government attempting to find the balance on where one individual’s civil rights begins and another individual’s civil rights end. Obviously, the line has be drawn somewhere and different communities will choose where the line is drawn. The issue is much more subtle and isn’t nearly as black and white (or “good” and “bad”) as you attempt to paint it.

        Also, your attempt to paint Obama and Holder agenda as “Libertarian, Marxist, socialist, black reparations kind of philosophy” is a non-sequitur. Please elaborate.

        • Samsa

          I agree, people discriminate all the time. And they should be allowed to. If it offends their religious beliefs to sell goods to, or employ, or even look at homosexuals, why should they be forced to do so? And if it offends their religious beliefs to sell goods to, or employ, or even look at somebody of another race or another religion, why should they be forced to do so? Let the market sort that out. Them people can take their business elsewhere.

        • Cotour

          This is a message I sent to a radio show host who was talking about the subject this morning, I think it illustrates my point.

          “I listened to your show this morning 2/26/14, you were discussing the Arizona religious freedom law. I have argued this point before related to this subject, keep in mind that I consider myself a sane Conservative and that our only hope of moving into the American future is by properly reconnecting with the Constitution. The Constitution being the counter balance to the nature of man as it relates to one mans power over another man (government).

          I believe that you have argued that the retailer has the right to refuse service to any person that is determined to be at odds with the religious beliefs of that retailer. In this case specifically a gay individual.

          First I think that we both can agree that each individual has the right under our Constitution to religious freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of association, as individuals under our Constitution. At the point that the entrepreneur decides to rent or build a store front and offer his services or wares to the public the entrepreneur has freely decided to change this paradigm. The now business owner, by their own choice has chosen to do business with the general public and in addition by extension is now an agent of the city and state by being required to collect sales taxes. The city being the city and the state being the state can not promote discrimination. Do you agree with me so far?

          First the two party’s are equal and then one of the party’s decides to become more equal and have the power to decide who they will and who they will not choose to do business with in regards to their open to the general public business. A customer is a customer. Where does this all end?

          I have to believe that you agree that to this point there is a fundamental logic problem with the proposed Arizona law. What the individual solutions might be for individuals conducting public business and not wanting to do business with certain individuals that are not to there personal liking I am not sure, but laws like the proposed Arizona law are not appropriate and only serve to distance the public from the party that embraces such thinking. Again, keep in mind that I am a Conservative.”

          As far as me characterizing Mr. Obama and Mr Holder as being “Libertarian, Marxist, socialist, black reparations kind of philosophy”, where do I begin?

          They interpret law quite literally and subjectively to the consternation of the Congress and 50% of the people.

          1. Libertarian- They believe that people should be able to do as they please. Everyone is literally equal not related to their capability but just because they exist. Libertarianism is a general philosophy that when taken literally must end in chaos. Chaos serves Obama and Holder well.

          2. Marxist- Who else in history also spoke endlessly about redistribution of wealth? Marx. (That was easy.)

          3. Socialist- Obamacare.

          4. Black reparations- Obama is consumed with racism, his own. If you understand his history and where he comes from and the history of the black side of his family you will come to understand his powerful motivations. When you combine his Saul Alinski community organizer study’s, the fact that his grand father was tortured by the British. Remember the first thing that he did when “installed” as president? He symbolically returned the bust of Winston Churchill and he disrespected the queen by giving her an Ipod I think it was. These were the symbols of colonialism that wronged his grand father (not that I could blame him). Again Obamacare which is the real world manifestation of the redistribution of wealth as well as the ultimate controller of the people. I can go on.

          The point is that Obama is a new kind of American politician and he is really unable to separate himself from being black, he is required to push as hard as he can for these things just based on where he comes from and what he is. He can not be “the” president of all of the people of America first, being the first “black” president he is obligated to to do these things. It would be a Herculian job for the best of us to rise above our own selves, he is not among the best of us. He is a man that finds himself in a position of great power (for two terms) by an anomaly of history, the push back to the abuses of power of the Bush administrations and other perversions. How would you feel given the opportunity and the power to right the wrongs of history? His power is basically locked up and when he leaves office he has to be able to say that he fought the good fight for “his” people.

          I just heard that the governor of Arizona vetoed the bill that we are discussing. She made the correct decision.

  • Patrick Ritchie

    Thanks Bob, an interesting read as usual.

    The distinction of a law that effects those in the employ of government vs the population at larger is enlightening.

    And I have much more respect for politicians who spend time trying to repeal bad laws, than those busy writing new ones because “something must be done”.

    I would like to delve a little deeper into the case of individual citizens disobeying the law.

    You state that contempt for the law may be justified if the law is “morally repugnant”. What is and isn’t morally acceptable and to what degree will vary from person to person. If this is the guidepost then what level of tolerance should we have for those who disobey the law but hold true to their own moral code?

    • You realize that the questions you are asking are the fundamental questions philosophers have been asking about the nature of freedom and government for thousands of years, beginning in our Western Civilization with Plato and Aristotle.

      Deciding when a law is morally repugnant is of course a difficult but very basic question. For me, it is decided by whether the law restricts the freedom of someone who is not doing anything morally wrong.

  • The Connecticuit law is unconstitutional and violates the highest law of the land. The decision of administrators to not teach the Consitution is unlawful because the issue is not the free speech of the administrators, but rather the law proscribes what the government officials are required to do. The two cases cannot be viewed through equal lenses because much of the Constitution is meant to restrict the power of the government behavior toward individuals, while laws requiring the government to teach the Consitution are not restricting speech and in fact proscribe what the government must do. Being a government employee requires following the law, a different standard compared to private citizens. There is no conflict to say application of the law on the one hand is unlawful violation of the administrators free speech when considering what the government is required to do. The issue of law is what restrictions there are on government policy with respect to our constitutional rights are. Citizens need to read American history, the reasons leading to the Declaration of Independence, and the Consitution in order to properly understand why the limitations on government were encoded into the highest law of the land, versus the assurances of individual liberties that are God given, especially the right to bear arms and defend oneself and loved ones.

    • Orion314

      RE: your point: “Citizens need to read American history” ….that is asking for alot, considering that American history is no longer taught in public schools, and that is by design and intent , not accident. BEST to keep the slaves stupid, in this country , I would have to say , (to paraphrase puppy george while wearing his jet pilot flight suit) “Mission Acomplished”

      sigh……;

  • Dale Martin

    The meaning of words has been distorted by the media and the liberals to the point that they think that “discrimination” is some kind of “magic word” that will end an argument. Like the playing of the race card, the over use has diluted the “magic”…..

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