Laws Versus Tyranny
OCTOBER 01, 1974 by LEONARD E. READ
Morality once shattered destroys the people and the ruler. Outside of prison and this side of hell men are not bound together by the club but by the consciousness of moral obligations.
-Walter A. Lunden
According to Thomas Fuller, the 17th century Royalist historian and preacher: "Law governs man; reason the law." This doesn’t seem right to me or, at least, seems contradictory to Professor Lunden’s observation about moral obligations.
Does reason govern law? If so, reason would appear to be a low-grade faculty, for there are as many varying conceptions of "law" as there are persons who use the term. Indeed, most of us use "law" loosely, meaning now this and then that. Were reason to govern, it would seem, at the very least, that we should have a sounder conception of what law is than is now the case.
In this context, what is law? Is it a body of legal edicts backed by force? Or a consciousness of moral obligations? Or, if some combination of the two, which takes precedent? These and many other related questions need some careful reflection if reason is to govern.
Lord Keynes, in 1938, speaking of the time when he was twenty, said of himself and his friends:
We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom. We were… in the strict sense of the term, immoralists… we recognized no moral obligation, no inner sanction, to conform or obey. Before heaven we claimed to be our own judge in our own case. So far as I am concerned, it is too late to change; I remain and always will remain, an immoralist….
In a recent comment on that passage, Henry Hazlitt suggests that "it is the spread of precisely this attitude since then to ever-widening circles that helps to explain the moral and political decay in the last few decades."
As to which takes precedence — a body of legal edicts backed by force, or a consciousness of moral obligations — I say, contrary to Keynes, the latter. In describing himself as an immoralist, Lord Keynes was saying that no moral laws or ethical imperatives are to stand in the way of desires and actions or to otherwise restrict his thoughts and deeds. And the result is an outpouring of legal edicts inspired by him and his disciples and designed to control the affairs of society.
Now to my faith. I am a moralist. I subscribe to the proposition that there are laws of nature and the universe, of Creation, that should be discovered and respected. I believe that all man-made laws —legal edicts — which go beyond codifying and complementing the moral law, serve not to bind men together but to spread them asunder, creating chaos rather than harmony, tyranny rather than peaceful order.
Fundamental to my faith is the rejection of government as the sovereign power. This puts me on the side of the writers of the Declaration of Independence:
… that all men are… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
By proclaiming the Creator as the endower of men’s rights, they proclaimed the Creator as sovereign, denying government that ancient and medieval role. Moralists!
Being a moralist also links me with Walter Lunden, F. A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, and an encouraging number of other moralists and ethicists of increasing influence. However, this does not mean that all of us see precisely eye to eye. That would be as undesirable as it is impossible. Why? It is our differences that serve as steppingstones to truth, an infinite pursuit. We agree on being moralists, not immoralists, moral values being the correct vantage point from which to look for improvement, refinement. Thus, let each share whatever his best thoughts reveal — the upgrading procedure, that is, learning from each other, catholicity the rule.
Foundations of Morality
What are the foundations of morality? Moralists have varying answers to this question. My foundations are the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. The Golden Rule, in my view, is the prime tenet of sound economics and, doubtless, the oldest ethical proposition of distinctly universal character. Let no one do to others that which he would not have them do to him; that would be just about the ideal, economically, socially, morally, ethically. Admittedly, this is more a goal than a likelihood, but it is goals we are considering.
There are moral values which are appropriately reinforced by man-made law, and other moral values which do not lend themselves to legal implementation. Let us examine the Ten Commandments to find where man-made laws are appropriate, that is, where they are complementary to the moral law, and where not.
Man-made laws — legal edicts backed by force — are inappropriate when directed at what the individual thinks or believes or does to himself. A man’s inner life can only be impaired, never improved, by coercive forces. Government is but an arm of society and its only proper role is to codify and inhibit injuries inflicted on society, that is, on others than self. Self-injury is subject to self-correction — none other!
Take the Commandment, "Thou shalt not covet." Enforce this by a man-made law? The absurdity is obvious. Envy is the root of many evils — stealing, killing, and the like — yet it cannot be done away with by the gun, billy club, fist, or any other physical force. Might as well pass a law against stress or worry or despair or man’s thoughts about the hereafter or against suicide for that matter. The you’s and I’s — society — may lament the ills many people inflict on themselves but we cannot correct them by legal concoctions.
The moralist concedes that there is good and evil in the world — in man — in any man — that there is a moral law by which one may distinguish the good from the evil. But he knows that he is powerless to relieve any individual of the certain consequences of that person’s immoral actions. Would he try to enact legislation to the effect that a person shall not be burned if he touches a hot stove or drown if he stays indefinitely under water without air? Such human enactments would be inconsistent with the moral laws of cause and consequence — would indeed be a form of tyranny, an invitation to lawlessness in the mistaken belief that one might violate the moral law with impunity.
Here are a few samplings of prohibitions by a government out of bounds, minding your and my business: driving a car without seat belts, staying away from school, working for less than $2.00 an hour, laboring more than 40 hours a week, keeping stores open on the Sabbath, exchanging the fruits of one’s labor for gold, on and on. All in the name of protecting the you’s and me’s against ourselves. Law? Not the way a moralist would define it! These are tyrannies.
Clearly, the moral law takes precedence over the legal edicts of civil law. The latter serves a useful purpose provided its limited role is understood and heeded. When statutory law invades the domain of the moral law, it is itself ineffective and it paralyzes moral action; it creates a vacuum.
Coercively enforce an observation of the Golden Rule when only self-enforcement is possible? Nonsensical! Can the government stop covetousness by making it illegal? Of course not! The role of civil law should be limited exclusively to inhibiting such injuries as some inflict on others, never directed at injuries we inflict on ourselves.
My moral code is founded on the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments, and I would call upon the civil law to help enforce only these: "Thou shalt not kill," "Thou shalt not steal," and "Thou shalt not bear false witness."
Conceded, killing, stealing, and bearing false witness inflict self-injury: the destruction of one’s soul, the loss of neighborly respect, the reduction of prospects for cooperation. However, each of these evils inflicts injuries on others and thus becomes a societal problem.
Such destructive behavior should be inhibited, insofar as possible, by the organized and legal arm of society — government.
All but the mentally deficient stand against the murder of one by another and more or less agree that one means of minimizing the practice is to oblige the murderer to pay the penalty for his crime.
Mass murder, on the other hand — killings by the millions — is not so much frowned upon. Why? These are done in the name of a collective and thus are thoughtlessly regarded as impersonal. I didn’t do it; the nation (or some other abstraction) did it! Witness the Crusades in the name of Christianity or the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe, or what goes on more and more in our time.1 The Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," is no less broken when done in the name of a collective than when one man kills another. What is the explanation for this calamitous trend? In my view, omnipotent government, that is government, not the Creator, as sovereign.
Only those who reason clearly from cause to consequence stand foursquare in support of "Thou shalt not steal." True, not one in a thousand would steal a penny from a child’s bank or a neighbor’s goose or another’s loaf of bread. Full respect for private property at the you-and-me level! Yet, people by the millions will ask the government to do the taking for them — billions upon billions of dollars annually. Plunder at the impersonal level! Why? The same old reason: government out of bounds, that is, government as sovereign. "The king can do no wrong; therefore, what he does for me at the expense of others is right." Sound reasoning? Hardly!
Those who cherish liberty are well advised to respect and defend the rightful claims of others. As Santayana wrote, "The man who is not permitted to own is owned." Observe that "Thou shalt not steal" presupposes private ownership, the bedrock or foundation of individual liberty. Why this assertion? How possibly could one steal were nothing owned! To disregard this moral law is to deny being one’s own man; disobedience invites enslavement — being owned. Merely observe how the fruits of individual effort are increasingly expropriated by the collective, how our options of ownership are being diminished. And the way to reverse this dreadful trend is to heed the Commandment against theft. Government’s role here, as in the case of murder, is to inhibit these infractions of the moral law, not to promote them.
"Thou shalt not bear false witness" means not to misrepresent or defraud or falsify. Make a contract, keep it. Let all representations be truthful, whether they pertain to persons or to goods and services. False witness, having to do with injury to others, rationally warrants that the civil law help rescue us from this evil.
To my way of thinking, morality, once shattered, destroys the people and whoever or whatever presumes to rule. It is only the consciousness of moral obligations that binds men together. This is one reason why I am an unabashed moralist and why I hope that our tribe may increase in number and improve in consciousness. Amen!
1 For further reflection on this complex matter, see my "Conscience on the Battlefield." (Copy on request.) The Thirty Years’ War witnessed the slaughter of millions of people "to the glory of God"! See Grey Eminence by Aldous Huxley (New York: Harper & Bros., 1941).