OPINION – How seriously should we take the law? The answer isn’t nearly as cut and dried as some would have it.
Consider for a moment what your instinctive reaction is when someone utters the words, “It’s the law.”
Do you automatically assume that if something has been sanctioned by the state as law that it must be right and that you’re duty-bound to respect it? Or do you more closely examine the moral premises of the law to determine if it is something you’d be willing to consent to follow?
Questioning the rightness or wrongness of a given law isn’t necessarily the mark of a scofflaw any more than mindlessly obeying a law makes someone a decent person.
We’re trained from the time we’re very young children to obey the rules that are dictated to us — or else. If we don’t, we’re told that men with guns will hurt us or other authority figures will shame us before our peers.
In this mindset, we are only concerned with what is legal and illegal rather than considering whether something is morally wrong or right. If something is legal, we can’t be punished for it, if it’s illegal, we can.
This kind of reflexive obedience to what we’re told is “law” stems from practices that have been used to create long-term obedience of large groups of people. But not many people realize that what we call “law” in our day is quite different from how laws used to be understood.
Too often we fail to distinguish between law and legislation.
Law, throughout most of the history of Western civilization, served the purpose of establishing what was just. Those laws were often based on customs and their effectiveness and whether the people considered them reasonable and fair.
Only those laws that met these criteria were able to stand the test of time. The law reflected the combined experience of many generations rather than the whim of an elite ruling class.
The key difference was that the law of the land wasn’t handed down by a king or some other lawmaker. It was developed primarily at the local level and through the decisions of trusted judges who knew how to apply reason. The king was not the final arbiter.
Proof of this can be seen in Article 39 of the Magna Carta in 1215 which reads:
No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor send upon him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the seeds of our current system with legislation, representatives and police began to sprout. Modern legislation is nothing more than the weaponized edicts of politicians.
It has become focused on maximizing the state’s control over the people rather than serving to encourage just outcomes. What we now call “laws” are merely legislation that’s often contradictory and arbitrarily enforced against a public that has been trained to never question whether these edicts are morally right.
As power seekers work to consolidate their control, their enforcers have to become more militarized over us. Training to keep the peace has instead given way to training officers to be adversarial in order to maintain the initiative and to escalate without cause against those who don’t obey quickly enough.
This has resulted in a very predictable us-versus-them mentality that pervades how legislative edicts are enforced.
There’s also the problem that legislation can and does change on a whim, such as Utah’s .05 blood alcohol level DUI law. This legislation arbitrarily criminalizes a BAC that was legal without making any distinction for those whose driving behavior has caused no harm or threat to others.
Most of us can recall just a generation ago when it wasn’t uncommon for a peace officer to stop high school kids who’d been out drinking, take away their booze and follow them home.
If a kid got his butt kicked by his dad right there on the front lawn while the police were standing there watching, it didn’t become a criminal matter. They weren’t being derelict in their duty, they were solving problems at the lowest possible level rather than looking to bring charges for every violation they could find.
Even if what you were doing was technically illegal, as long as you weren’t actively harming someone or their property, officers had considerable latitude to cut a break to those who were ignorant of the law.
Because of this, people tended to be more honest and respectful with the police. Only the most determined hard cases failed to take the hint and correct course.
Today, it’s far too easy to find your life destroyed over things that bothered no one, based on legislation that you may not have even known or understood.
The lesson here is that we should think before clicking our heels for legislated edicts. Their enforcers may be paid to compel our obedience but understanding the difference between right and wrong is a better guide than simply knowing what’s legal and what isn’t.
Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events viewed through the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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