Law Is Not a Band-Aid for Every Problem
As much as our society changes, some ideals stand the test of the centuries. One of these ideals is law. This does not necessarily imply that law is the most effective solution for every problem of society, but rather that laws tend to be long-lasting and powerful. We should be careful about which rules we allow to become law, because they may outlive us and the situations that they were designed to fix. Furthermore, it is all too easy for laws to become the means for one person or group of people to force their will upon those in a weaker position.
Frédéric Bastiat, a French economist and legislator who fought for free trade rights in the 1840s, warned his contemporaries of this threat that law can pose, and he also pointed out how easy it is for law to become a powerful weapon against any who disagree with the legislators.
The Show-Me Institute book club, which meets every other Wednesday night at 7:00 (join us at our next meeting on December 1!), discussed Bastiat’s Selected Essays on Political Economy last year. The first essay, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” outlines a vital concept of economics — and, indeed, of life in general. Bastiat explains that actions have consequences in both the short term and the long term, both seen and unseen, and that often the unseen consequences are far-reaching in their scope. The unseen consequences of new laws can be disastrous when circumstances change. Moreover, a lawmaker may not be in a position to understand the practical consequences for all the people who will be affected by a law. In this way, a law which is intended solely to help people may end up hurting many, for a long time to come.
The Springfield News-Leader ran an article this week in which the author, Dr. John Lilly, explains how Bastiat’s ideas continue to be relevant 150 years after they were written. Lilly examines the origin and purpose of law, explaining that when one person takes another’s property by force, this is the definition of “plunder.” From the article:
Life, liberty and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.[…] Legal plunder occurs when the law takes from one person, and gives it to another person. Legal plunder benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.
Lilly asserts that law exists in order to serve people and protect their rights, but that law can also be twisted to sanction and enforce plunder. He illustrates this with a quote:
Bastiat stated, “And, in all sincerity, can anything more than the absence of plunder be required of the law? Can the law — which necessarily requires the use of force — rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting it and, consequently, turning might against right.”