Wednesday, October 24, 2007

For Law Plain and Simple

We hold it to be a fundamental position, that the people have understanding enough to know their interest, and to take care of it. The legitimate object of all governments and laws, therefore, is, to protect men from the force or fraud of others, and not to protect them against themselves. This the law cannot do; and, wherever it assumes this sort of guardianship over men, it degrades and corrupts them without rendering service. How many laws would be expunged from our code, if the doctrine now advanced were more regarded?
George Hay - Speech Delivered in the Legislature of Virginia in the Session of 1816-17

Three and a half centuries ago a party of pamphleteers appeared in England. These "supporters and defenders of liberty and propriety," known to history as the Levellers, stood against the "grandees" and "arbitrarians" of their day by calling for equality under the law and intelligibility in the law. "Yee know," they wrote in A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens (1646), "the Lawes of this Nation are unworthy a Free-People, and deserve from first to last, to be considered, and seriously debated, and reduced to an agreement with common equity, and right reason, which ought to be the Forme and Life of every Government." They dreamt "that all the laws might be reduced to a smaller number to be comprised in one volume in the English tongue, that every free commoner might understand his own proceedings."

Law drowns in its own flood. More than a century later, another bold pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, called for a periodic review of the "whole mass of laws" in order "to bring this misshapen monster into form, and to prevent its lapsing again into a wilderness state." Thomas Jefferson drafted a bill for such a general revision of the laws of Virginia within a few days of his assuming legislative office in 1776, a revision that took two and a half years. Later when President, in 1802, Jefferson targeted the acts of government, writing: "[W]e might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant's book, so that every member of Congress, and every man of any mind in the Union, should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses and consequently control them." Paine advocated sunsetting old laws and acts after a fixed period making ongoing Congressional revision necessary: "If it was made an article in the Constitution, that all laws and acts should cease of themselves in thirty years, and have no legal force beyond that time, it would prevent their becoming too numerous and voluminous, and serve them within view in a compact compass. Such as were proper to be continued, would be enacted again, and those which were not, would go into oblivion."

Let's reunite law and liberty. "A great idea from the beginning has been working in the minds of this people, and it broke forth with peculiar energy in our Revolution," wrote William Ellery Channing. "This is the idea of human rights. In our Revolution liberty was our watchword... Liberty was always regarded as each man's right, imposing on every other man a moral obligation to abstain from doing it violence. Liberty and law were always united in our minds."

The Solonian Journal shall endeavor to further the cause of such a reunion of law and liberty, humbly recognizing that, in the words of Channing, "Legislation has its limits. It is a power to be wielded against a few evils only. It acts by physical force, and all the higher improvements of human beings come from truth and love. Government does little more than place society in a condition which favors the action of higher powers than its own."

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Minnesota Libertarian January 1995. I added the last paragraph in November 1995. I added the first sentence of the second paragraph in September 2007.

Update (Nov 26, 2007): After reading James Buchanan's book on classical liberalism and, more particularly, on the ethics of liberalism, I should like to emphasize how much more effective a revitalization of the "ethics of liberalism" would be than a mere taming of the wilderness of laws, as necessary and daunting as the latter task may be.