Monday, May 8, 2017


     How does a man incur a debt? Don’t answer quickly; think about it. Try to adopt a broad view: one that addresses debts of many kinds. Give the question some time to interact with common notions about responsibility and justice. Try to formulate your answer in a fashion that pre-answers the next question:

     How does a man discharge a debt, once he’s incurred it?

     Yes, yes, your Curmudgeon’s marble is rollin’ down that ol’ metaphysical-deontological groove again. Hopefully you’ll regard the journey as worthwhile.

     Herschel Smith at Captain’s Journal has something to say about it, in the context for which he’s best known: the right to keep and bear arms:

     I oppose the modern concept of incarceration, as well as the notion and phrase that any man has a “debt to society” that must be paid. No man has a debt to society. If he has stolen he has a debt to the victim. If he murders, rapes [or] kidnaps, he should be put to death.

     Please read the entire article for the all-important stimulative events and their consequences. If you’re a gun-rights absolutist – for the record, I am – you’ll immediately sympathize with protagonist Brian Bridges. But seeing the connection between Bridges’ plaint and Herschel’s statement above is likely to take a bit more thought.

     Among the shibboleth phrases of contemporary “justice,” “debt to society” is critically important, for what it implies as well as what it says openly. Its import is comparable to that of another detestable phrase, “compelling government interest.” The general acceptance of the implied notion has made it possible for governments everywhere to replace the clear and simple idea of justice with something that more closely approximates slavery.

     I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that the above is a bit of hyperbole. You might see matters differently by the end of this tirade.

     I dedicated yesterday to Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” Today’s foray into absolutes will address the nature of justice, and the techniques power-mongers have employed to rob us of it.

     A passage from Isaac Asimov’s early novel The Caves Of Steel has much point:

     “...I am a robotics expert, and I assure you that the essence of the robot mind lies in a completely literal interpretation of the Universe. It recognizes no spirit in the First Law, only the letter. The simple models you have on Earth may be incapable of threatening a human. An advanced model such as R. Daneel is another matter. If I gather the situation correctly, Daneel’s threat was necessary to prevent a riot. It was intended then to prevent harm to human beings. He was obeying the First Law, not defying it.”
     Baley squirmed inwardly, but maintained a tight external calm. Hard as it would be, he would match this Spacer at his own game.
     He said, “You may counter each point separately, but they add up just the same. Last evening, in our discussion of the so-called murder, this alleged robot claimed that he had been converted into a detective by the installation of a new drive into his positronic circuits. A drive for justice.”
     “I’ll vouch for that,” said Fastolfe. “It was done to him three days ago under my own supervision.”
     “A drive for justice? Justice, Dr. Fastolfe, is an abstraction. Only a human being can use the term.”
     “If you define ‘justice’ in such a way that it is an abstraction, if you say that it is the rendering of each man his due, that it is adhering to the right, or anything of the sort, I grant you your argument, Mr. Baley. A human understanding of abstractions cannot as yet be built into a positronic brain.”
     “You admit that, then — as an expert in robotics?”
     “Certainly. The question is, what did R. Daneel mean by using the term ‘justice?’”
     “From the context of our conversation, he meant what you and I and any human being would mean, but what no robot could mean.”
     “Why don’t you ask him to define the term?”
     Baley turned to R. Daneel.
     “What is your definition of justice?”
     "Justice is that which exists when all laws are enforced.”      Fastolfe nodded. “A good definition for a robot, Mr. Baley. Justice is a very concrete term to him since it is based on law enforcement, which is in turn based upon the existence of specific and definite laws. There is nothing abstract about it. A human being can recognize the fact that, on the basis of an abstract moral code, some laws may be bad ones and their enforcement unjust. What do you say, R. Daneel?”
     “An unjust law,” said R. Daneel, “is a contradiction in terms.”
     “To a robot it is, Mr. Baley. As you can see, you mustn’t confuse your justice and R. Daneel’s.”

     This passage, from a writer whose political premises and demands were far distant from mine, is so penetrating that it should stand alone before the next coffee-refill break. And so it shall.

     If Asimov is correct, and justice is an abstraction based upon another abstraction – a moral code shared by many, if not most of Mankind – then how could we arrive at the notion of a “debt to society?” What aspect of our moral code – informally speaking, the conception of rights and responsibilities that were first articulated recognizably by the Enlightenment philosophers – delineates how an individual could incur such a debt?

     To cut directly to the chase, the thing is impossible. It fails on two grounds at the very least:

  • Justice is bound to the protection of rights, which are the properties of individuals;
  • “Society” is a mirage, for it has no persistent identity that can be injured.

     I have absolutely no doubt that some Gentle Readers are recoiling from the above. Take your time over it. There’s more and worse to follow.

     The notion of a “debt to society” came about through the exploitation of horror at a badly abused practice of olden days – debtors’ prisons – and the passage of laws that forbade “crimes” that have no victims. One such crime – prostitution – makes a good case study.

     Prostitution, as Michael Emerling once replied to a questioner, is merely the combination of free enterprise with sex. That it should be considered criminal is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back less than two centuries. Yet the great majority of Westerners would reflexively say that it should be illegal, though they’d differ as to why.

     Once an act is declared illegal, those who perpetrate it incur the possibilities of pursuit, indictment, trial, conviction, and a consequence normally called “punishment.” What’s the point of that process? There must be one, since it involves labor and costs that are often quite substantial. So why do “we” do it?

  • To establish justice;
  • To deter others who might be tempted to break the applicable law;
  • ?

     We’ll get back to the matter of justice. The desirability of deterrence flows from the evaluation of the act as “unjust.” But is there a third reason? Fill it in if you can, Gentle Reader; I can’t.

     (A useful tangent: At least one federal law of current interest, the law against entering the United States without prior authorization or exception, is “punished” solely by deportation, as long as the illegal entrant has violated no other law. But why?)

     As for the “injustice” committed by one who violates a law against prostitution, where is it? If justice is about the maintenance, protection, and restoration of individuals’ rights, what right is affected to any degree whatsoever by Smith’s desire for sex and willingness to pay for it, coupled (pardon the pun) to Jones’s willingness to provide sex for some monetary compensation?

     For most of human history, no such violation could be found. The proscription of prostitution was a religious matter, not a legal one. Only in the most recent centuries has it been regarded otherwise...usually under the rationalization that “society’s” norms of “decency” had been “harmed.”

     Hearken to a great mind of the Twentieth Century, Frank Chodorov, on the nature of “society:”

     [Society] is not an extra “person”; if the census totals a hundred million, that’s all there are, not one more, for there cannot be any accretion to Society except by procreation. The concept of Society as a metaphysical person falls flat when we observe that Society disappears when the component parts disperse; as in the case of a “ghost town” or of a civilization we learn about by the artifacts they left behind. When the individuals disappear so does the whole. The whole has no separate existence.

     If “society” is a phantasm as Chodorov maintains, then there’s no way to incur a debt to it. All debts must be owed to particular individuals or organizations made up of such individuals. Moreover, one can only incur such a debt in a sharply limited number of ways:

  • A purchase coupled to a deferred payment;
  • Voluntary agreement to lend and to borrow;
  • An injury done by one to the other.

     However, the phantasm is quite useful to those who want power over others. They can usurp the debt owed to the victim of a crime by calling it a “debt to society,” thereby justifying the exclusion of the victim from compensatory consideration. They can create mala prohibita – crimes that are crimes merely because the State says so – and use them to mulct both the “criminal” and the taxpayer. And of course – and this might be the most important consideration of all – they can take us for a ride on Ferris’s wheel:

     “Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against – then you'll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can be neither observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with.” [From Atlas Shrugged]

     To sum up: Herschel’s main representation is absolutely correct. The appropriate penalty for non-property crimes with an identifiable victim is a separate consideration, albeit a worthy one. But above all else, if we’re ever to make sense of “law” and “justice,” we must rid ourselves of the absurd notion that a man can “owe” anything to a collective hallucination that lacks identity, persistence, and the ability ever to repay a debt that it owes to those who endure it. Verbum sat sapienti.

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