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.