Two Evils of Consequence

There are laws on the statute books which in some cases make it illegal for a merchant, having purchased his goods, to sell those goods at prices of his own choice. The law says he may sell only at prices fixed by others, and all who buy from him are aiding and abetting a lawbreaker.

Yet if you live in a town of any size at all, you need only look about to find many instances where the law is evaded. Merchants sell at illegal discounts and American citizens flock to the bargain counters.

There are also laws on the statute books which in some cases make it illegal for a farmer, owning or leasing his own land, to grow on it the crops of his own choice. In some cases the law says he can plant only so much wheat, let us say, as government decides; in others, that he is subject to prosecution and fines if he plants any wheat at all.

Yet the United States government is finding that all across the country there are farmers who are proceeding to grow what they choose on their own land and to defy the fines.

Now it is easy to wax indignant about lawbreaking; to assail the character and social conscience of those who disdain the law. For there is no gainsaying the fact that society rests upon the sanctity of the law, and that when ordinary citizens come to disdain it we all suffer an evil of consequence.

But we are not dealing here with the occasional and exceptional lawbreaking of the criminal who lives outside of society’s moral code. We are dealing here with the ordinary, law-abiding citizen of the community who creates society’s moral code. And that must give us pause as to where the evil lies.

In both of these cases—the so-called fair trade laws and the agricultural control law—we have passed statutes which, however legally enacted, do not comport with the ordinary citizen’s sense of morality. Indeed, we have here laws which run counter to the sense of morality.

When the housewife goes down to buy her toaster at the discount house, neither she nor her neighbor thinks that morality is outraged. On the contrary, it disturbs her moral sense for the law to demand that she pay more than the market place requires. And for all the legal briefs that may be filed in all the courts of the land, the ordinary citizen is not going to think that a merchant who of his own choice sells cheap has committed an offense against society.

You cannot make people believe, either, that the farmer who grows wheat to feed his herds has done an immoral thing, whatever says the law. In all truth, not even the police officers are convinced of it. The government authorities, from Secretary Benson to the local federal agents, approach the prosecution of offenders timidly, as if they themselves feared that the defiers of the law did so with some justice.

The defiance of the fair trade laws has already been enough to cause one of the larger appliance manufacturers to find them unworkable; this week Westinghouse announced that it would abandon them. And the defiance of the farm laws has already created what Secretary Benson calls an “intolerable” situation and he predicts that violations will grow.

It is an evil thing for good and honest citizens to lose respect for the law. Yet it is an evil thing, too, for people to suspend their own moral sense. And what is not long tolerable is for the law itself to create a cruel conflict between the two. []


Editorial in Wall Street Journal, Sept. 2, 1955

Thanks to the free trade tradition, there are still many manufacturers and merchants who regard Protection with contempt; but the longer Protection lasts, the fewer they may become. This is partly because tariffs and quotas build up minor uneconomic industries which could not exist without them; and partly because Protection removes the incentive to efficiency and self-reliance, and makes those who formerly walked alone fear they can no longer proceed without crutches.

Already there are many farmers who, though fully conscious of the restrictions and losses caused by the Marketing Boards, fear to ask for abolition of the Boards, “unless something else is put in their place.” Personal liberty is losing its meaning to these men, and if that tendency continues they will become read.y to accept an ever-increasing degree of bureaucratic control; and so resistance to dictatorship becomes undermined.

C. J. L. Brock, The Moral Case for Free Trade, 1936

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