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Friday, April 9, 2010

Obey the (Natural) Law

Live honestly, hurt no one, and give to every one his due.

Tax Day approaches, and I’ve been thinking of all the ways government bullies us, demanding we do – and not do – things — or else.

You can get into big trouble for not sending in a bunch of forms to the IRS by April 15 disclosing how much money you made last year. You can get into bigger trouble for not giving the government the cut to which it believes it’s entitled.

You can also get into trouble – admittedly lesser – if you don’t fill out and return that census form sent you without your consent.

You can get into trouble for hiring someone who doesn’t have the government’s permission to be within the politically defined borders of the United States. Even some people who claim to be for limited government like this idea — they favor tough employer sanctions and raids by armed government agents to break up such commercial relations between consenting adults.

You can get into trouble if you ingest a disapproved intoxicant or narcotic. Heck, you can get in trouble for ingesting some approved ones without permission.

You can get into trouble if you refuse to sell your land to the government at any price when politicians decide they want it for a public or private  use.

You can get into trouble for putting a shop in an area zoned exclusively residential or vice versa.

You can get into trouble for doing some jobs without a government license, even if your customers are perfectly happy.

And, oh yes, soon you’ll get into trouble for not buying a health-insurance policy.

You can get into trouble for doing a long list of other things that harm no one whatsoever. The things I’m thinking of are not objectively wrong. They’re just mandates and prohibitions decreed by a legislature and signed by an executive.

“It’s the law.”

Is it?

There’s a legal tradition dating back to antiquity which says that “law” means the natural law and that any legislative product that conflicts with the natural law is no law at all.

As Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long points out, the principle lex injusta non est lex — an unjust law is not a law —  “was once, and indeed for over two millennia, the dominant position in western philosophy of law…. This doctrine was upheld by Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon, by the Stoics and by Cicero, by Augustine and Aquinas, and by Blackstone as well.  The traditional idea was that law must be distinguished from mere force by its authority, and that nothing unjust could have genuine authority” (“Inside and Outside Spooner’s Jurisprudence”; link will download an unpublished paper in Word format).

As Long points out, the great American political philosopher Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) applied this principle in his characteristically consistent and rigorous manner. It’s worth seeing what Spooner had to say. In 1882 Spooner defined natural law as “the science of justice”:

the science of all human rights; of all a man’s rights of person and property; of all his rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is the science which alone can tell any man what he can, and cannot, do; what he can, and cannot, have; what he can, and cannot, say, without infringing the rights of any other person.

It is the science of peace; and the only science of peace; since it is the science which alone can tell us on what conditions mankind can live in peace, or ought to live in peace, with each other.

In his 1886 “A Letter to Grover Cleveland,” Spooner elaborated on what natural law is:

Let me then remind you that justice is an immutable, natural principle; and not anything that can be made, unmade, or altered by any human power.

It is also a subject of science, and is to be learned, like mathematics, or any other science. It does not derive its authority from the commands, will, pleasure, or discretion of any possible combination of men, whether calling themselves a government, or by any other name.

It is also, at all times, and in all places, the supreme law. And being everywhere and always the supreme law, it is necessarily everywhere and always the only law.

This is hard-hitting stuff, absolutely bracing. But where does it leave the Congress, state legislature, and city council?

Lawmakers, as they call themselves, can add nothing to it, nor take anything from it. Therefore all their laws, as they call them, — that is, all the laws of their own making, — have no color of authority or obligation. It is a falsehood to call them laws; for there is nothing in them that either creates men’s duties or rights, or enlightens them as to their duties or rights. There is consequently nothing binding or obligatory about them. And nobody is bound to take the least notice of them, unless it be to trample them under foot, as usurpations.

But if perchance Congress should pass a law that coincides with the natural law?

If they command men to do justice, they add nothing to men’s obligation to do it, or to any man’s right to enforce it. They are therefore mere idle wind, such as would be commands to consider the day as day, and the night as night.

Legislation consistent with justice, however, is the exception not the rule, as we know. The real laws commanding us to do natural justice and abstain from injustice are older than the hills, fully in force before the first Congress or legislature convened. So we must ask, what is the status of “laws” that contravene the natural law? Spooner answers:

If they command or license any man to do injustice, they are criminal on their face. If they command any man to do anything which justice does not require him to do, they are simple, naked usurpations and tyrannies. If they forbid any man to do anything, which justice could permit him to do, they are criminal invasions of his natural and rightful liberty. In whatever light, therefore, they are viewed, they are utterly destitute of everything like authority or obligation. They are all necessarily either the impudent, fraudulent, and criminal usurpations of tyrants, robbers, and murderers, or the senseless work of ignorant or thoughtless men, who do not know, or certainly do not realize, what they are doing….

It is intrinsically just as false, absurd, ludicrous, and ridiculous to say that lawmakers, so-called, can invent and make any laws, of their own, authoritatively fixing, or declaring, the rights of individuals, or that shall be in any manner authoritative or obligatory upon individuals, or that individuals may rightfully be compelled to obey, as it would be to say that they can invent and make such mathematics, chemistry, physiology, or other sciences, as they see fit, and rightfully compel individuals to conform all their actions to them, instead of conforming them to the mathematics, chemistry, physiology, or other sciences of nature.

Of course, prudence may counsel compliance with the arbitrary decrees of legislators. Within limits, so be it. But, please, in the name of exactness and truth, do not think of it as obeying the law.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.