Law & Order

Monday, Jan 03, 2011

Despite being surrounded by evidence that the law is inherently political in nature, most people are nevertheless able to convince themselves that it is an embodiment of objective rules of justice which they have a moral obligation to obey. As in all cases of denial, people participate in this fiction because of the psychological comfort that can be gained by refusing to see the truth... Belief in the existence of an objective, non-ideological law enables average citizens to see those advocating legal positions inconsistent with their values as inappropriately manipulating the law for political purposes, while viewing their own position as neutrally capturing the plain meaning immanent within the law. The citizens' faith in the rule of law allows them to hide from themselves both that their position is as politically motivated as is their opponents' and that they are attempting to impose their values on their opponents as much as their opponents are attempting to impose their values on them. But, again, as in all cases of denial, the comfort gained comes at a price. For with the acceptance of the myth of the rule of law comes a blindness to the fact that laws are merely the commands of those with political power, and an increased willingness to submit oneself to the yoke of the state. Once one is truly convinced that the law is an impersonal, objective code of justice rather than an expression of the will of the powerful, one is likely to be willing not only to relinquish a large measure of one's own freedom, but to enthusiastically support the state in the suppression of others' freedom as well.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a government of law and not people. The law is an amalgam of contradictory rules and counter-rules expressed in inherently vague language that can yield a legitimate legal argument for any desired conclusion. For this reason, as long as the law remains a state monopoly, it will always reflect the political ideology of those invested with decision-making power. Like it or not, we are faced with only two choices. We can continue the ideological power struggle for control of the law in which the group that gains dominance is empowered to impose its will on the rest of society, or we can end the monopoly.

Our long-standing love affair with the myth of the rule of law has made us blind to the latter possibility... We cannot conceive of a society in which individuals may purchase the legal services they desire. The very idea of a free market in law makes us uncomfortable. But it is time for us to overcome this discomfort... We must recognize that our love for the rule of law is unrequited, and that, as so often happens in such cases, we have become enslaved to the object of our desire. No clearer example of this exists than the legal process by which our Constitution was transformed from a document creating a government of limited powers and guaranteed rights into one which provides the justification for the activities of the all-encompassing super-state of today. However heart-wrenching it may be, we must break off this one-sided affair. The time has come for those committed to individual liberty to realize that the establishment of a truly free society requires the abandonment of the myth of the rule of law.

The Myth of the Rule of Law, John Hasnas, Wisconsin Law Review, 1995,

One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963,