Tuesday, September 25, 2007

When the Law is All We Have

Thomas Sowell has a piece discussing, in the current controversy between black and white students in Jena, Louisiana, the one thing has been forgotten – the law:

The slogan “No justice, no peace” has been used to justify settling legal issues in the streets, instead of in courts of law.

Neo-Nazis have now helped demonstrate what a dangerous slogan that is, since different people have opposite ideas of what “justice” is in a given situation.

Long after the imported demonstrators have left, and the national media have lost interest, the families of the black youngsters involved in the school altercation will have to live with the knowledge that their privacy and security have both been lost in a racially polarized community, with vengeful elements.

The last thing the south needs is a return to lynch-mob justice, whatever the color of whoever is promoting it.

Back in the 1950s, when the federal courts began striking down the Jim Crow laws in the South, one of the rising demands across the country was that the discriminators and segregationists obey “the law of the land.”

But, somewhere along the way, the idea also arose and spread that not everybody was supposed to obey “the law of the land.”

Violations of law by people with approved victim status like minorities, or self-righteous crusaders like environmentalists, were to be met with minimal resistance — if any resistance at all — and any punishment of them beyond a wrist-slap was “over-reacting.”


The notion that there is a “people’s will” that governments frustrate and which must therefore be acquired by mass action is often a very dangerous one. It is just as problematic in Jena as it is on the other side of the world, in Nepal, as I noted last year. There are two views of government that have long dominated the Western political conversation. In one, shared by the American founders, all people are members of this or that special interest, and all wish to seize the reins of government to get it to promote that interest, by putting the rest of society to work in pursuit of it. The government must be thus restrained to prevent one group - the rich, militant environmentalists, whoever - from dominating the rest of society. In the other, there is a unitary public interest, and it is the job of the government to carry it out. Government thus must not be restrained but indeed empowered to do what must be done (to "break a few eggs," in Lenin's famous phrase). If it fails to do so, then “the people” must defy the law until it is remolded, consistent with this interest. (This is sometimes phrased, not entirely accurately, as the difference between a republic and a democracy.)

But, as the famous scene from A Man for All Seasons reminds us, when the laws are cut down in the name of the public, we stand naked before evil. Remember that the next time someone goes on about “the people united, will never be defeated,” or some such. Liberty is a fragile thing, and the law, once corrupted, moves it closer to the breaking point.

2 Comments:

Blogger Joshua said...

Race is only part of the equation. There's also the inherent fallibility of our legal system and the miscarriages of justice they occasionally but inevitably produce. Too many miscarriages, especially in high-profile cases, and people are bound to lose their trust in the law as a vehicle of justice. Then it becomes a question of whether you're willing to accept these injustices as the price for some semblance of a peaceful and orderly civilization. In Jena we're now seeing what happens when the answer is no.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Since one man's miscarriage of justice is often another's righteous vindication, any high-profile case is bound to present controversy. It seems clear to me (without knowing much about Jena in particular; I was more interested in the protests than the case itself) that once people accept, perhaps because they have been egged on to accept, that the system is rigged, the notion of ordered liberty is doomed.

The rise of people who have an incentive to encourage perceptions of a rigged system (e.g., ethnoreligious entrepreneurs like Rev. Sharpton, the 1960s legacy of belief in a fatally flawed U.S.), thus, is very bad news.

11:06 AM  

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