Monday, September 30, 2013

The Great Disaffection

Glenn Reynolds, our beloved InstaPundit, has delineated one aspect of the ongoing IRS scandals that will have grave and protracted consequences:

So last week, while most of the country was talking about football or fears of a government shutdown, Rasmussen released a poll that should worry everyone -- but especially incumbent Democrats in Congress. According to Rasmussen's survey, most Americans think the IRS broke the law by targeting Tea Party groups for harassment, but few expect it to be punished. Fifty-three percent think the IRS broke the law by targeting the Tea Party and other conservative groups like the voter-integrity outfit True The Vote; only 24% disagreed. But only 17% think it is even somewhat likely that anyone will be charged, while 74% think that criminal charges are unlikely.

So a majority of Americans think that government officials who exercise an important trust broke the law, but only a very small number think anything will be done to punish them.

Many in the Right will regard this as dog-bites-man stuff, yesterday's news at best. It is not:

Believing that government officials break the law is one thing; believing that they face no consequences when they're caught and it becomes public is another. Not only is this a sort of "broken windows" signal to other bureaucrats -- hey, you can break the law and get away with it -- but it's particularly damaging where the IRS is concerned.

America's tax system, despite the feared IRS audit, is fundamentally based on voluntary compliance. If everyone starts cheating, there aren't enough IRS agents to make a dent. Beyond taxes, that's true regarding compliance with the law in general. Moral legitimacy is what makes honest people obey the law even when they can get away with breaking it. Undermine that and you get a country like, say, Italy, where tax evasion is a national sport.

The effect goes well beyond taxation, of course. Law can only be seen in one of two ways:

  • As the codification of what all decent persons know to be right and just;
  • As an instrument by which the nation's masters can oppress and plunder the rest of us.

When the former conviction prevails among the ordinary persons of a nation, there is order, social harmony, and very little crime. The average man understands the law to be only a somewhat more formally worded version of the moral and ethical principles he learned at his mother's knee. He would accept it as a given, something that needs no continuing attention.

When the latter conviction prevails, things are much different. What order there might be exists despite the law. Ordinary persons regard it as morally and ethically repugnant, and violate it whenever it suits them to do so. Their sole disincentive to violation is the probability of being caught and the severity of the consequences. Some among them seek to use the law as an instrument for their own gain at the expense of others...and not all of these are lawyers.

Frederic Bastiat pinned this more than 160 years ago:

Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter—by peaceful or revolutionary means—into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.

None of the aspects of human nature that propel this progression have changed since then.

It's been some time since Typical Decent Person John Q. Public was more likely than not to say that law in America is merely a formal codification of right and wrong as he understands it. Mr. Public isn't that naive. He can see what goes on in Washington, in the state capitals, and (to the extent that it gets any publicity at all) in county and municipal legislative bodies. It appalls him. But he's had no power to alter it much since the New Deal years.

Mr. Public, and an ever swelling number of his relatives, neighbors, and friends, are disaffected from the legal and political structures of these United States. They reject all claims that law and law enforcement have anything to do with justice. The disaffection has progressed so far that police interactions with private citizens that were once deemed routine and unthreatening are viewed as potentially oppressive, to be video-recorded "just in case." The police don't like it much, but whether it chafes the honest ones or the dishonest ones more severely is hard to say.

Disaffection is followed by disaffiliation: the withdrawal of allegiance, whether express or implied. Shortly after that, we'll find ourselves in Isaac Asimov's decaying Galactic Empire:

"The fall of Trantor," said Seldon, "cannot be stopped by any conceivable effort. It can be hastened easily, however. The tale of my interrupted trial will spread through the Galaxy. Frustration of my plans to lighten the disaster will convince people that the future holds no promise to them. Already they recall the lives of their grandfathers with envy. They will see that political revolutions and trade stagnations will increase. The feeling will pervade the Galaxy that only what a man can grasp for himself at that moment will be of any account. Ambitious men will not wait and unscrupulous men will not hang back. By their every action they will hasten the decay of the worlds. Have me killed and Trantor will fall not within three centuries but within fifty years and you, yourself, within a single year." [Isaac Asimov, Foundation, emphasis added.]

Gives you a big warm-fuzzy feeling, doesn't it?

Allow me to recur once more to Frederic Bastiat:

No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

The divergence of law from fundamental moral and ethical principles has gone a long way already. It doesn't have much further to go. The final push could well come from IRS malfeasance.

What Lois Lerner and her willing collaborators did was clearly and flagrantly illegal. They used the pretense of legal authority to hobble one side of an electoral contest. The evidence is beyond dispute, as is the law that pertains to such machinations. With the rise of the general conviction that no one in government will suffer a just punishment for having helped Barack Hussein Obama to steal his second term of office, we come to the edge of the abyss: the point at which the courts, long trusted to apply impersonal standards of justice to public servants and private citizens alike, will be relegated to the moral void along with the law itself.

Are you ready for the vigilance committees, Gentle Reader?


lelnet said...

"It doesn't have much further to go."

By what do you suppose it is still connected? The mere fact that a few acts which are immoral happen to also sometimes be prohibited in law?

We have evidence, of course, that when this is the case, it did not happen by random chance. (The laws on the statute books were written by men acting the case of laws of particularly long tenure there, one might even suppose that those men who drafted them possessed something resembling consciences.) But so long as this congruence is no more frequently found than random chance would predict (and it certainly is not, at this point in history), I would assert that it is erroneous to assume any kind of deterministic connection between the statutory and common law as it stands today, and the universal and timeless moral and ethical law.

I fear that I must also dispute Bastiat's notion that "[t]hese two evils are of equal consequence". Losing one's "respect for the law" is not an evil, in and of itself. The law (at least, the law as decreed by men) is worthy of respect only when (and only to the extent that) it is congruent with the moral law. It is the habit of giving the laws of men greater respect than is their proper due, which is an evil.

A Texan said...

In line with the statement that

They reject all claims that law and law enforcement have anything to do with justice. The disaffection has progressed so far that police interactions with private citizens that were once deemed routine and unthreatening are viewed as potentially oppressive, to be video-recorded "just in case."

is this horrible story:

Anonymous said...

How does a libertarian seriously present that second Bastiat quotation? Morality enforced as law?

Francis W. Porretto said...

Anonymous: If you interpret "morality" according to a sectarian definition, you're likely to misunderstand Bastiat -- as you apparently have.

Nicholas Darkwater said...

Tacitus is quoted with 'Corruptissima republica, plurimae leges' (The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws.)

Mt Top Patriot said...

Dear Mr. Porretto,

Would you revisit this post?
This is a really great piece.
I think it deserves expounding on as it has everything to do with consent, a plurality and crisis of legitimacy, in the context of right now.
Of course it is also a very good bit of writing, if for no other reason, I think, you put the concept of consent into words that provide proper meaning.