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Above the Law

Entry 2042, on 2020-05-12 at 20:07:08 (Rating 4, Politics)

How seriously should we take the law? Is a person who breaks a law automatically a bad person? Is it our duty to stop people breaking laws and to report anyone who does? Are the police, and other enforcement authorities, our friends or our enemies?

These are questions that I have already considered in the past, but they seem to have become particularly pertinent in the last month or two after our governments - here in New Zealand as well as around the world - have unilaterally removed many of our previous freedoms, insisted that the police should enforce the new restrictions, and even encouraged people to report their friends and neighbours if they see them breaking the new rules.

I'm sure that in the majority of cases these rules have been put in place with the best of intentions, but as the old saying goes: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". I realise that there are multiple interpretations of this phrase, but I am referring to the most common one: actions which are intended to produce a positive outcome very often achieve the exact opposite.

In addition, every law cannot produce just a single outcome, because of interactions with our complex society, misapplication to edge cases, and misuse by nefarious parties there will be a mixture of good and bad results for any law that is enacted.

So I think it is important to not be too trusting of the law, and it is more important not to assume that anyone breaking a law is automatically a bad person. Of course, the vast majority of people committing acts which break major laws, such as murder, are bad people by any reasonable assessment, and society has a right to control them through whatever process is prescribed, but this only applies to a tiny fraction of offences and we should treat other transgressions with more flexibility and understanding.

In fact, everyone breaks laws, and no one even knows what all the laws are, and even if they did there is always some uncertainty in what they even mean and how they should be applied.

In a book "Three Felonies A Day", the American civil rights lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, says that everyone in the US commits 3 felonies a day, and that if the government took a dislike to them they could always find a felony they’re guilty of. In addition, many countries can't even give a count of the number of laws in force, and no one can tell you what they all are.

So the old expression "the law is an ass" is undoubtedly true. Note that this expression refers to the animal like a donkey which has a reputation for being stubborn, so it really says the law is inflexible and obstinate, rather than being stupid or ridiculous. Of course, the second interpretation does often fit as well as the first!

I actually quite enjoy breaking laws (sorry, I can't say what what type of laws they are, but they would all be classed as "victimless crimes"), as well as rules at other levels of society. I would never deliberately do anything which I knew would unnecessarily harm another person, so I wouldn't murder, steal, etc, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the law; it's more about what I know is right.

When I present this rather anarchistic opinion to people they often looked shocked, and respond with an accusatory question like: "do you think you are above the law?" My answer to this is: "well yes, I do". If I can't maintain a set of rules which I impose on myself which are at least as good as those created by a bunch of lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians, them I'm not much of a person, am I?

I do understand there are consequences for breaking laws, so if I was fined or prosecuted in some other way for breaking one I wouldn't be surprised, and would probably accept it without too much complaint. But even though I might be caught breaking a law, I don't think I would have done anything wrong.

If you are still shocked at my attitude then I offer you this: even though the book I referenced above is based on US laws, there is no reason to think the conclusions would be much different in any other country. So everyone breaks the law, including you, so what right do you have to judge anyone who is caught?

To be fair, the claim that "everyone" breaks three laws every day seems to be a bit strong, but it's hard to imagine how every person on the planet hasn't broken at least one during their lifetime, so the basic point remains.

Now let's return to my original questions. First, how seriously should we take the law?

I think we should take laws fairly seriously for two reasons: first, you might face severe negative consequences, including fines and jail, if you are caught breaking one, so that is worth considering; and second, many laws are quite good guidelines on how to behave, so they at least act as a good starting point for deciding what your personal rules should be.

Second, is a person who breaks a law automatically a bad person?

Well, of course not, unless everyone is a bad person, which leads to the word "bad" being somewhat pointless. If people deliberately break laws which genuinely harm other people then there is probably a good case to say they are "bad", but that is because they did a bad thing, not because they broke a law.

Third, is it our duty to stop people breaking laws and to report anyone who does?

This depends on the potential consequences. In the current situation our prime minister encouraged people to "dob in" others breaking the lockdown laws. This seemed to be contrary to her "be kind" mantra, but we shouldn't expect anything she says to make any real sense, so that's no surprise. So I might report someone who was obviously sick joining a large group of people, but it's unlikely I would take much notice of anyone just breaking a totally arbitrary rule, especially since the lockdown laws themselves are very likely unlawful.

Finally, are the police, and other enforcement authorities, our friends or our enemies?

I think, in general, they are our friends, but that should be judged on a case by case basis, and it is fair to say that the police are an ass, as well as the law, because they demonstrate a similar lack of flexibility. And I totally reject the "I'm just doing my job" defence, because that is also known as the Nuremberg defence, because it was used by Nazis accused of war crimes after the war. Note that I'm not comparing the police with Nazis here! I'm just saying that that defence is not a good one.

So my attitudes tend towards anarcho-libertarianism, but I am realistic enough to realise that the state, laws, and other rules might be an unfortunate necessity. But do I have to like or accept them because of that? No, because I think I, and probably you, and most other people (except for genuine sociopaths) really are above the law!

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