All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1962

Legal But Immoral


Dr. Russell is Professor of Economics at Rock­ford College and Chairman of the Department of Economics and Business Administration. This article is from his weekly editorial col­umn in the Sunday edition of the Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, September 10, 1961.

All of us, at one time or another, have repeated the phrase, “Might doesn’t make right.” But like any other idea that, from constant rep­etition, degenerates into a mere cliché, we forget the meaning be­hind the words. That’s why so few of us see the contradiction in the phrases, “Might does not make right,” but “The way to determine whether Social Security is right or wrong is to vote on it.”

In reality, who or what gets the most votes in an election is totally unrelated to who or to what is right.

When the majority of the people in old New England (and in other places at other times) endorsed that frightful campaign to search out and to burn witches, that didn’t make it right. Everyone can now see that. But when I point out that price controls and sub­sidies to farmers are also morally and economically wrong, observe what happens. The farmers who get the subsidies (and the politi­cians who get the votes) immedi­ately accuse me of not believing in democracy—”The people voted for it in a democratic election,” they say, “so that makes it right.” I say flatly, it does not.

When the majority of the Amer­ican people endorsed the Eight­eenth Amendment to our Consti­tution, that did not make drinking wrong; it merely made it illegal. Drinking is right or wrong on its own merits. And it did not sud­denly become right again when the American people repealed the “prohibition amendment”; at that point, the drinking of whisky merely became legal once more.

Of course, the law and morality are frequently together on a given issue. For example, it is both im­moral and illegal to murder and to steal. We are fortunate in such cases, for then we do not have to choose between law and morality. But since there is no positive re­lationship of any description be­tween legalities and moralities, it is a mere coincidence when they correspond. The criteria for right and wrong come from a source (in fact, from several sources) that are outside of government. They existed before any current govern­ment was ever formalized. And, of course, they continue to exist during and after a revolution and the formation of a new govern­ment. The government does not, and cannot, bring them into ex­istence.

Is It Right or Wrong?

I shall not here be so presump­tuous and arrogant as to tell you what is right and what is wrong in all the relationships of man­kind. In many areas and on many issues, I just don’t know. I can, however, offer a useful procedure for determining which is which. Ask yourself whether human slavery is right or wrong. Was it right a hundred years ago? (Re­member, the American people had approved of slavery and had voted for it.) After you have answered that rhetorical question as best you can (and have listed your rea­sons), you will discover that what the law says, or what your duly elected congressman says, are not included in your sources and guides for determining right from wrong. Nor did it even enter your mind to call your neighbors to­gether for a vote on the issue.

I am confident that those same standards, guides, principles, and sources (whatever they may be) are more likely than any others to give you the correct solution to the many vital questions that we must answer as individuals and as a people. Hold fast to them and you are not likely to be pulled off-side by the childish notion that voting is the proper way to determine right from wrong. You will also then be in a far better position to use your vote intelligently to help determine what we should make legal and what we should make il­legal, based on something more substantial than current and popu­lar emotions.

Mechanically, I have no objec­tion whatever to the democratic process—the mechanism—that we use to select our officials and to decide various issues that are of equal concern to all of the people. I can’t think of any other practi­cal way to do it. But I become dis­couraged indeed when people con­fuse the mechanism itself with the rightness and wrongness of the resulting actions. The “liquida­tion” of millions of persons in Communist Russia under Stalin was wrong; it would have been equally wrong even if the over­whelming majority of the Russian people had voted for it in a demo­cratic election. It is a fact that Hitler was elected more democrat­ically than were most of the Presi­dents of the United States. But that fact is, of course, totally un­related to the rightness or wrong­ness of the proposals and acts of the leaders of the two nations. In the final analysis, the only issue that can be decided by govern­mental voting is to determine what the minority shall be forced to do by the majority. That dangerous weapon should be used sparingly indeed.

When To Vote?

If voting could really be used to determine right from wrong—and what we should all be forced or forbidden to do—we could use it to settle the religious question once and for all. We could vote democratically to decide which re­ligion we shall all be compelled to follow. (It always amuses me to observe how some of the most rabid of the social democrats back away from that one; and on occa­sion, I have been known to resort to the low trick of taunting the worst of them with this question: “What’s the matter—don’t you believe in democracy and the right to vote anymore?”)

Perhaps James Madison, in the tenth Federalist Paper, best an­swered this general question on voting and democracy. “Measures are too often decided, not accord­ing to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

That’s why our Founding Fathers deliberately established a Republic with heavy checks and balances against popular and hasty actions, instead of a Democracy in which the people are encouraged to believe that they have the “right” to vote on anything and everything. It’s too bad that their plan is being so constantly eroded away.