5 april 2010

Immoral acts should not always be illegal
(Vincent De Roeck)

“The more laws you make, the more criminals you will have.” This famous quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu captures the essence of what libertarians ought to stand up for. In brief, we are strongly committed to the idea that it is not up to the State to decide what actions are legally acceptable and morally justifiable, and what actions are not. The debate about morality and legality might indeed be a very old one; it nevertheless remains a crucial debate for libertarians to engage in on a regular basis. The indulged people of the West tend to forget that the State has no birthright in itself and that it is not infallible at all. At the core of the human tradition we do not detect collectivism and repression, but individual morality and a natural law order. Libertarians are the only ones today still living up to the most basic values of humanity.

We believe that every individual is born a free man and that every person possesses a series of innate and inalienable God-given rights and freedoms, notably the rights to life, liberty and property. The only limitation to someone’s freedom in such a natural law environment is the way it extends to the equal freedom of other human beings, and true justice is enforced through a civil law tort system whereby all damages are repared and where the victim, not the State, acts as prosecutor. The State has no authority to foist a moral code upon us, other than protecting other human beings against the actual violation of their rights. Legality and morality are intertwined in the current system at the detriment of both ideals. Individuals are no longer ought to abide by their own moral convictions but by those of the collective. That is why morality must at all times remain an individual thing, and legality an objective natural law standard.

Charity, for instance, is no longer a private matter, but the State rationale behind the bluntest thievery ever initiated against free people: taxation through violence and social engineering through redistribution. Killing someone is no longer immoral because the murderer trespasses on someone else’s most basic freedom but because it is prohibited by law. If we go down that path, killing blacks under the Apartheid regime in South Africa or torturing Jews in Czarist Russia suddenly has to be considered “moral” as well, because it was strictly “legal”. Not paying taxes, on the other hand, is an illegal act, but does that make it necessarily immoral? I don’t think so. It seems obvious to me that both principles have different ranges of application and must never be centralized in one single State-induced “justice” system.

What is immoral for one person might not be immoral for someone else, and what should be outlawed in the eyes of one citizen might just as well be pushed forward for legalization by another. Instead of “solving” these discrepancies through State intervention, empowered by the Mob rule we call “democracy”, we should opt for a strictly limited legal framework, private or not, which guarantees every person, libertarians and collectivists alike, the maximum freedom possible. Libertarianism does not constitute a socio-cultural dogma; it is nothing more than the embodiment of a morally neutral framework for human interaction and spontaneous social orders. This framework will allow us to live together in liberty, individualism and mutual understanding. Or as the first U.S. President George Washington said: “It will set the standard to which the wise and honest can repair, the rest lies in the hands of God.”

We are not free because that is what the government tells us. We are not free because that is what is written down in a historic document. We are free not by default, but because that is our destiny as human beings. Liberty in their lifetime is the highest value the Almighty bestowed on its creation. We have to get rid of the laws that enslave us and restore the Law that will set us free. If we don’t stand up now, and if we continue to accept that it is up to a tiny elite in a far-away capital to decide for us what is moral and legal, and what is not, we are doomed to discover, as Jacob Hornberger from the Future of Freedom Foundation puts it, what others who have lost their liberty at the hands of their own government have discovered over the ages. “Once the surrender of rights has begun, the march towards tyranny becomes inexorable.”

Vincent De Roeck

(This short essay was initially written for the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.)

Click here for another short essay.


At 5/4/10 23:17, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

@ Vincent

Some comments for your consideration.

1) First paragraph. Indeed, the State is in no position to determine morality, but surely only the state (through its properly constituted organs, i.e. the Legislature and the Judiciary) can decide on legality. We cannot possibly allow individuals to decide what is legal and what is not. That would be pure anarchy and chaos. Also, while it is true that the powers of government come from the people and not vice versa, it is also true that to secure the individual rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness") governments are instituted among men "deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed". That is how the American Founders outlined the moral foundations of a free society. They saw liberty as the aim or goal of the political order, and reason as the method or foundation for achieving it. To achieve liberty one cannot ignore reason.

2) Second paragraph. There is no evidence that the human tradition is - or has been - one of "individual morality and a natural law order". On the contrary, the historical record is largely one of abusive government. It is true that the American Founders saw the right to the individual pursuit of happiness as implying a respect for the equal rights of others to do the same. To that end they sought to devise a government strong enough to secure individual rights against domestic and foreign oppression, but not so powerful and extensive as to be oppressive itself. In short...checks and balances. While I doubt very much that "legality and morality are intertwined in the current system", I agree that morality is "an individual thing" and that "legality (ought to be)... an objective standard". I doubt that there can be agreement on a "natural law standard". My gosh, contemporary Europeans cannot even broadly agree on what freedom of speech means! And I cannot fathom how anything - let alone "justice" - could be "enforced" without a State or a duly-constituted government.

3) Third paragraph. Ideally, taxation would not require "violence", but it surely must be compulsory, imperfect human nature being what it is. It is quite conceivable, in autocratic societies or political systems, that legality and morality can sharply differ or be in manifest conflict. But, in democratic societies, it seems unavoidable that legality will be largely in line with perceptions of morality that are broadly held among the population. True, "not paying taxes" is not necessarily immoral. But neither is it necessarily moral. The law is what the law says. By contrast, morality requires an individual judgement that may, or may not, deviate from what the law says.

4) Fourth paragraph. While perceptions of morality differ among peoples (or cultures), and even among individuals of the same people, there cannot be many moralities. There can only be one human morality, i.e. one human behavior that is in accordance with 'true' human nature. This reality (of differing perceptions about morality) surely argues for "a strictly limited legal framework", but it should not lead to the illusion that there can be such a thing as a "morally neutral framework for human interaction and spontaneous social order". Any legal framework wil have moral implications or consequences, about which opinions will differ greatly.

5) Indeed, if we want to maintain human freedom, we must keep control of government and of those who will seek to use government for special interests. That is an admonition for political engagement and involvement, and for transmission of cultural values of self-responsibility to the new and upcoming generations through education in the home and the school.

At 6/4/10 14:53, Anonymous BC said...

From: The book of change. How to understand and use the I Ching. Neil Powell. pp 4-5

"Taoist values are opposed to action and material achievements, 'power and learning is adding more and more to oneself, Tao is subtracting day by day'. Passivitity is seen as a desirable quality, 'rigour is death, yielding is life'. Law and Order, the twin gods of the police and and the lawyer, are seen as obstacles to the Tao: 'as laws increase, crimes increase'.
At their most extreme these attitudes make the Taoist into a sort of pacifist anarchist who totally rejects not only all laws and governments as enemies of the Tao but even the simplest mechanical aids to the everyday business of living. Just how far this rejection of material things can go is illustrated by a popular taoist story:
an intelligent young man observes an elderly peasant irrigating his crops by the tedious process of raising water from a well, one bucket at a time, and taking it to the fields. The young man describes a simple mechanism that would deliver water directly from the well to the crops. 'I know of this apparatus', says the old man, 'but those who use cunning machines soon begin to practice cunning ways. Thus their hearts become cunning, and a cunning heart prevents one from being pure in thought. Those whose thought is impure have troubled spirits, and they cease to be fit vehicles for the Tao'."


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