December 29, 2014

The Idolatry of Man-Made Law

By In Articles, Society and Culture

When Edward Snowden rose to worldwide recognition for the act of revealing the secrets kept so close to the National Security Agency, his most vocal critics –those who had the most to lose for the crime of transgressing the right that individuals have to privacy from the governments that rule over them– continued to claim that “Snowden has broken the law!”  There was almost zero (I say almost on the off chance that I missed an example of this) self-reflection by those who had stolen money from the citizenry via all kinds of taxation and used that money to treat individuals around the world as if they were criminals that needed to be spied on and controlled.  There were almost no instances of repentance, of a realization that what the State and its cohorts had done was wrong.  There was no turning away from this one example of wicked deeds undertaken by the State –and this isn’t even the worst of the US Government’s criminal activity all over the world.  Instead, the focus adopted by the accused was away from the centrality of ethics and morality and toward the centrality of legislation; man-made law.  The bully in the room has declared that it is wrong to offend him, no matter what he does –violators will be persecuted; or, in the case of Snowden, their character and person will be tarnished and mocked as they hid halfway around the world from the wrathful hand of the despicable State.

In the recent Eric Garner story, a man was murdered by a tax-funded “law-enforcement” officer who had been trained to enforce, at all costs, the man-made laws of the State.  Rather than considering Garner a victim of Statism, he is dismissed as a worthless perpetrator of the State’s almighty commands.  Wikipedia:

After Garner expressed to the police that he was tired of being harassed and that he was not selling cigarettes, officers moved to arrest Garner on suspicion of selling “loosies” (single cigarettes) from packs without tax stamps. Garner pulled his arms away from officer Daniel Pantaleo. Pantaleo then put his arm around the much taller Garner’s neck and pulled him backwards and down onto the ground. After Pantaleo removed his arm from Garner’s neck, he pushed Garner’s head into the ground while four officers moved to restrain Garner, who repeated “I can’t breathe” eleven times while lying facedown on the sidewalk.lawtiat-quote-picture

Defenders of Pantaleo will claim that the outcome may not have been preferable and perhaps Pantaleo overdid himself, but the important thing to remember is that “Garner was breaking the law!”  This is ludicrous. It assumes that the legislated law created out of nothing, much like the Federal Reserve’s “money,” is the final standard of right and wrong.  It assumes that the authority to create law which binds the individual is held chiefly by other men.  It assumes that certain men in certain positions have the moral authority to control the lives of others and dictate the decisions that are made by a man with the property given to him by God. It assumes that the State has the right to halt the free trade of man unless the State itself given permission.  It assumes that the State has a right to extract a fee from the free trade between Garner and his customer.  It assumes that Eric Garner was the aggressor, when in fact Garner was the victim of aggression.  In the paragraph above, Garner expressly denied that was selling single cigarettes, but it really should not matter. Eric Garner, and every other person, has the right to consent to trade his own property for the property of another.  The problem is not that Garner disobeyed the government’s law, it is that the government disobeyed God-given ethical standard; namely, thou shall not steal.

When we speak of law, we may be referring to several things.  When we say “God’s law,” we are most often referring to the idea of “ethics.”  Ethics are the transcendent standard of moral behavior and it is this standard by which God deems the individual a sinner upon his failure to completely line up with it.  The Christian’s standard of ethics is commonly referred to as “the Moral Law” and is distinct from positive laws in the Bible, which God gave only in the context of a certain covenant. Those outside of the covenant cannot be held to the stipulations of that covenant!  For example, God gave the Israelites a set of positive laws which were intended to govern their life in their land; this is commonly referred to as the “Judicial Laws.” Of these laws, John Calvin writes:

“For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere; but when he had taken the Jewish nation into his safekeeping, defense, and protection, he also willed to be a lawgiver especially to it; and—as becomes a wise lawgiver—he had a special concern for it in making its laws.”

Thus, these Judicial Laws were positivistic, as distinct from the “universal ethics” of the Moral Law.  Besides ethics, which are transcendent, there are other positive laws that are developed within the contexts of given communities in need of order today.  These positive laws (for example, the thief must pay back double the value to the victim), are based on the eternal ethical standard (thou shall not steal).  Every community might have such laws that are slightly different from each other.  The important thing is that the positive law reflect (be based on) the transcendent or ethical law.  Is it bad that communities may have slight deviations in their actual application of the transcendent law? Not at all! John Calvin writes:

But if it is true that each nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges to be beneficial, still these are always to be tested by the rule of charity, so that while they vary in form, they must proceed on the same principle.

In other words, it is perfectly legitimate that each jurisdiction have slightly different laws, but the important consideration about the goodness of a given law is that they proceed from the same principle, or ethical standard.  Libertarian Hans Hoppe lists among the features of a good legal system the following:

(a) the supremacy of and the subordination of everyone under one law, (b) the absence of any law-making power, and (c) the lack of any legal monopoly of judgeship and conflict arbitration.

In other words, a good law will be based on a transcendent principle to which no person is excepted.  Those who enforce this law, whether in a “private law” society (preferable) or not, cannot create law as legislators do today, but rather must apply the ethical standard in their given context, and can only apply this law in a way that does not cause them to commit a transgression of this very law!  This italicized portion refers to point “(c)” above.  For a judge which uses aggression to weed out his competition has himself broken the ethical standard by committing aggression against his neighbor in his effort to monopolize his role in society.

The Edward Snowden and Eric Garner examples are only two of hundreds of thousands of instances in which the State has abused the role of governance in society and creates law and subsequently refers to that “fiat law” as the final and ultimate standard by which right is declared right and wrong declared wrong.  There is no basis in the transcendent ethical standard for one group of individuals, calling themselves the State, to demand that no person sell or trade his own property, in singles or packets or any other form.  Those who support the State’s position on this are guilty to idolatry; of making the authority claimed by the State as ultimate, as making the State and its rule enforcement branch exempt from the ethical standard given to us by God.  That the State would have the audacity to claim it can declare its own legislated commands as equal to right and wrong proves its inherent wickedness.

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But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense. –Frederic Basiat, The Law

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Thanks. Great clarifications towards the end w/ Hoppe