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June 23, 2012
LawlessnessThat "the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life," I entirely accept. Yet the famous passage from II Corinthians is easily misunderstood. It refers to the letter of the law, and as Mr. Bumble suggested in Oliver Twist, "the law is a ass, a idiot" sometimes. This becomes inevitably the case when we have legislatures grinding out laws faster than they can read them, written by bureaucratic "experts" whose motives and interests are not examined, and whose good faith therefore cannot be assured.
But if we are to have legitimate, responsible government - a government of laws, not a tyranny of men - the letter of the law is extremely important. And in that case, the letter is in accord with the Spirit: for the Spirit commands obedience to the laws, except under the most extreme circumstances.
One may break a law to which one conscientiously objects, but implicit in that act is willingness to take the consequences. Such acts of civil disobedience are designed to highlight the injustice of a law, and therefore to inspire public pressure to get it changed - by Act of Parliament, or other legitimate means.
Thanks to the proliferation of stupid law - elaborate, often clashing regulations, promulgated usually by executive order, bypassing all legislative review - a huge grey area has spread through the moral life of society. Regulations are ignored, irregularities go unreported, because strict obedience would grind everything to a stop.
And things like smuggling and taxcheating become commonplace, where the penalty for honesty is set far too high.
As my Czech friends used to say, when the Communists occupied their country: "If you don't steal from the government, you are stealing from the mouths of your own children."
This "grey area" is toxic. It is inflationary, it spreads with the passage of time, and by increments it undermines the habit of abiding by the law. Even when people are honest, the possibility of dishonesty is constantly before them, and just thinking about it - "Should I declare this income or not?" - has a corrupting effect.
As readers of this space will know, I am not opposed to what I persistently call the Nanny State for the libertarian reason that it is inefficient, that it eats away at productivity. My opposition is more fundamental than that. I oppose the Nanny State because it is evil; because it corrupts everything it touches.
And what I fear, now, is that we have reached the point where lawlessness becomes acceptable not only from the bottom up, but from the top down. This is where real tyranny emerges: where the man with power decides, if he doesn't like a law, that he may simply override it.
The perfect example came up from the United States this week. President Barack Obama, who had tried but failed to get the U.S. Congress to pass his immigration "Dream Act" (with resistance from both political parties), simply overrode the existing law by a memorandum commanding it not to be enforced against a whole class of individuals. He did this with a shameless political calculation: that in an election year, his move would appeal to Hispanic voters, and Republicans seeking their vote would not make a big issue of it.
Likewise, in declaring executive privilege to shield his attorney-general, Eric Holder, from a congressional investigation into the murderous scandal of the justice department's "Fast and Furious" gun-running scheme. For this "privilege" does not extend to documents clearly within the congressional purview.
Likewise, the executive orders which abrogated citizens' firstamendment rights, by compelling them to pay for private services to which they are morally opposed, under Obamacare.
Likewise, the systematic leaking to sympathetic journalists of classified government security reports, describing U.S. undercover operations around the world against Islamist terrorists. In this case, he showed not only contempt for law, but for the lives of U.S. agents and their allies in the field. In order to get favourable publicity for himself, he was willing to sacrifice them.
In each of these big cases, and many smaller for which I have no room, the politician in question has used the extraordinary power of his office to "get a result," in defiance of law, established constitutional procedure, and basic decency. And in each case, he did so in the knowledge that his supporters, and a supine liberal media, would not call him on it.
In each case, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court may intervene. But in doing so, the justices are forced to handle a political football, thus exposing themselves to partisan attack, and grinding away at their legitimate authority.
Obama can of course be defeated at the polls, as other politicians who become progressively more lawless. But the precedents they set have grievous, accumulating consequences. The public at large has lost sight of the fact that democracy, without law, is plain barbarism.
© Ottawa Citizen