“It’s The Law”

JTK over at No Treason duly bitch-slaps Libertarian turned Republican Congressman Ron Paul.

You bandy about the words “illegal” and “lawbreaker” as if they had moral content. They don’t.

Weren’t Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and all the founding fathers lawbreakers? Wasn’t Thoreau? Or Martin Luther King?

Wasn’t the Declaration of Independence itself an act of lawbreaking?

Men have no moral obligation whatsoever to obey or even recognize
immoral laws, including many immoral laws that you are party to. Stop
using law as a proxy for morality in your arguments. There is no
necessary relationship between the two.


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  1. Kyle Bennett on April 7, 2006 at 13:45

    "…as if they had moral content. They don’t."

    But then:

    "Weren't X, Y, and Z lawbrakers?… Men have no moral obligation whatsoever to obey or even recognize immoral laws,"

    Jeez. He got within sniffing distance of a really important point, then backed out like Punxsutawney Phil seeing his own shadow.

    The what and the why of laws of any kind having no moral content is fundamentally important. The idea that "immoral laws" have one kind of moral content while others presumably have another kind, as conclusively proven by the fact that Ben Franklin thought so, is not.

    Laws have no moral content. *None* of them.

    Those laws arrived at through moral methods put no more obligation on any of us to obey them than do laws arrived at through immoral means. Laws say *nothing* about how any of us should or should not behave. That's not what laws are for.

  2. Glyn (Zaphod) Evans on April 7, 2006 at 12:17

    I guess that makes everything okay then :)

  3. wally on April 7, 2006 at 13:39

    well said!!!

  4. Human Advancement on April 7, 2006 at 21:25


    From No Treason via Richard: You bandy about the words ‘illegal’ and ‘lawbreaker’ as if they had moral content. They don’t.

    Weren’t Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and all the founding fathers…

  5. Richard Nikoley on April 8, 2006 at 11:42

    I'm not sure what you mean by moral "content," but there certainly are and can be valid laws. However, all such law imposes only negative obligations, i.e., the non-initiation of force/fraud and its legitimate derivatives. "Laws" that impose positive obligations of any kind are always immoral, evil, and completely invalid at all times and contexts.

    Whether in a free-private (anarchist) society or not, there probably is an argument to make for some sort of codification of laws. Human being are not omniscient and are not infallible, and therefore, there will always be dispute over facts, and indeed, dispute over how non-disputed facts correlate with reality and conceptual meaning.

    Even if you are a die-hard and consistent free-market-anarchist, and know and understand the non-initiation of force principle backwards and forwards, you can face circumstances where it is very, very difficult to judge precisely who and who did not initiate force/fraud. Try a very complex multi-hundred page contract dispute between major corporations involving hundreds of responsibilities on each side, multiple properties, multiple affiliate/agent players, etc.

    Therefore, things like the Uniform Commercial Code and other national/international rules can be quite helpful in sorting out such disputes, provided such laws or rulebooks do not impose any positive obligations.

  6. Kyle Bennett on April 8, 2006 at 14:55

    Yes, there are legitimate laws, even under illegitimate governments. My argument is not for or against the existence of laws, nor even the proper content of laws, but the nature of law itself. By "moral content", I mean that which the law says about morality – about things like should and shouldn't. What morality has to say about any particular law is a different issue, and one that is still very important.

    I'm saying that laws do not impose obligations, positive or negative, they only impose consequences. That's not just a semantic difference, it goes straight to our orientation to whatever legal context we find ourselves in, as well as to the purpose of and limits to the functions of legislatures. And it provides a quick rule of thumb to evaluating any given law: if you worry about the consequences of violating it, then you probably think it is an illegitimate law, or you'd never have even gotten to the point of thinking about consequences.

    Things like the UCC and traffic lights are not inherently illegitimate (though their specific form can be, and usually is in the case of traffic lights). They serve a valid purpose, but one that is different from the purpose of laws. If everyone has a right to use an intersection, but people coming from different directions cannot both use it at the same time, a traffic light might be the proper way to let these two conflicting interests co-exist, by making the means of resolving these non-rights violating disputes predictable, safe, fair and easy. They make it regular.

    The UCC, as I understand it(*), does a similar thing. It says that if you make your contract conform to such and such a standard, then we (the "authorities"), will be at your service for addressing violations of said contract. What it should also say, and I have no idea if it does or not, is that if you enter into a contract that does not so conform, then you're on your own in resolving disputes. Make the contract regular, and we'll protect your rights under it, don't and you'll need to find someone else to do that.

    Both of these constructs are different from laws in that they do not provide a penalty for a specific action, nor do they directly resolve a dispute. They set the ground rules under which certain kinds of disputes can be resolved, including assumptions of what constitutes a violation when sorting it out directly would be difficult or impossible – as in both the case of your contract example and the case of two cars approaching an intersection at the same time with no way of determining later who would have gotten there first.

    Under US law, these differences are (or at least once were) recognized. We call the set of rules that make things regular "regulations", and do not generally require the elected legislature to directly create them – because they do not directly impose consequences, but only create uniform methods and pre-requisites for resolving disputes. Any so called regulation that carries any kind of direct penalty, including things like a fine or the loss of a license, is not a regulation, but a law. (Of course, in the US, this has been wholly perverted to the point where unelected regulators routinely create laws.)

    (*) If I'm mischaracterizing the UCC, my description of it here still works as that of a hypothetical regulation that can be legitimate if it stays within the purposes I've outlined.

  7. Kyle Bennett on April 8, 2006 at 15:20


    You're right. I'm separating the legitimacy of laws from the legitimacy of the governments that create them, and I suppose there's an argument for not doing so. On the other hand, even a purely anarcho capitalist protection agency would have rules of some kind about what it will and will not address with force, and regulations for deciding how to resolve disputes short of force. I presume that the fitness to purpose of these rules would be one of the major factors used in evaluating which PA to choose. So even in a fully legitimate, non-coercive, you're free to go at any time competitive government, these considerations still apply.

  8. Richard Nikoley on April 8, 2006 at 15:21

    "Everything you want can be done with mutually-volunatry contract law and with non-binding tort law."

    Which is what I'm talking about, as all parties to a business transaction are by nature voluntary participants (or it's not "business"). Business contracts usually include provisions for dispute resolution (mediation, arbitration, court & venue). Even in the case of "criminal law," such as a prohibition against murder, there are two cases: those who voluntarily submit themselves to the rule and whatever consequences the rule proscribes and those who refuse to submit.

    In the first case, everything's by mutual consent, so that's settled–even in the case of a murder. In the second, those who do not agree to abide may find themselves subject to various degrees of individual or group shunning or ostracism, depending upon what other conditions of agreements the group has decided for itself, all by mutual consent.

    Indeed, in however many hundreds or thousands of years it will take for humans to become smart enough, all "retribution" will be via shunning and astracism, even to the point of carrying out a "death penalty," i.e., lethal ostracism.

  9. Greg Swann on April 8, 2006 at 14:51

    > Whether in a free-private (anarchist) society or not, there probably is an argument to make for some sort of codification of laws.

    Codified by whom? Binding upon whom? Clubs have rules, not laws. Any club you can't quit is a state–an inherently criminal origanization. Everything you want can be done with mutually-volunatry contract law and with non-binding tort law. Tred one toenail beyond that–to enforcement upon non-volunteers–and you have a state.

  10. Greg Swann on April 10, 2006 at 20:23

    The good news is, it probably won't take very long to achieve a civilized humanity. As life expectancy increases, the (perceived) marginal value of jackasstrophic conduct decreases. There may be an ugly shakeout, but, if our technology base persists, the survivors will be civilized people. Take heart: We could easily be among them.

  11. Richard Nikoley on April 13, 2006 at 07:30

    True morality isn't subjective. It's objective. The confusion stems from the propensity of people to make moral issues of things that aren't moral issues.

    Murder is objectively immoral, regadless of what the murderer thinks or feels about it. Whether he's guilty of it is a matter of factual determination and evaluation and at least part of that process is subjective. We are human, after all.

  12. Crisscrossing Sanity on April 13, 2006 at 06:11

    Very true… Then again, morality is subjective… Probably the guy who got arrested for murder thought he was fully justified… And he only knows the reasons…

  13. Neal's Workshop on April 18, 2006 at 06:40

    The End of the World is Nigh?

    A lot is going on right now.

    For one, commodity prices are sky-rocketing. For a comprehensive analysis of this, check out themessthatgreenspanmade.blogspot.com. Specifically, however, check out Iacono’s post on Oil, Greenspan, China. He’s talki…

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