Sunday, 20 March 2016

On being law-abiding, and the coerciveness of the law

     "Hey, I have no intention of ever murdering someone, but why do we have to have a law telling us not to, and threatening us with life in prison if we do? Why is it okay for the State to coerce us into not murdering each other?"

     An argument often raised by libertarians against this or that law (often the law requiring them to pay taxes) is that law is inherently coercive. That is, they'll claim that taxes are morally indistinguishable from robbery because the government is putting a gun to your head and demanding you hand over your money. Sometimes, if they're capable of nuance, they'll qualify this by saying that some taxes are necessary, and only excessive taxes are morally bad because you're being coerced to hand over more than necessary. In any event, they focus on this coerciveness, the fact that the might of the state makes a credible threat of punishment if you fail to comply, as the fundamental evil of law generally. Sometimes a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless.

     It seems like a slam dunk argument, but when I reflect on why I (and most people) obey the law, it begins to ring hollow. The fact is, I do not obey the law simply to avoid punishment. I obey the law because it is the law; I have committed myself as a rational autonomous being to abide by the law, even when it is not in my immediate interests to do so, because I recognize a moral duty to be law-abiding. While I may not agree with each and every statute on the books, I embrace the concept of law itself, not least because it includes mechanisms for challenging unjust laws. I have written before of why I choose law over lawlessness.
     Now, of course it is true that if I were to break the law, I would be subject to punishment. And yes, the threat of a fine is an inducement for me not to park illegally, but here's the thing: I try to avoid parking illegally regardless of whether or not there is a risk of a fine, and if I do occasionally get a ticket, it's usually because I underestimated how long an appointment would last and didn't put enough in the meter, not because I took a calculated risk and thought I could get away with it.

     It's important to stress here that I am not advocating a blind obedience to the dictates of Parliament, or that Just Following Orders is in any way an appropriate moral stand. One of the best things about our law is that there is always (supposed to be) a mechanism for review and considerations of justice. If I'm arrested for a crime I didn't commit, the law obliges the Crown to prove it before I am to be punished. If I'm arrested for a crime I did commit (whether by accident or by moral lapse or by civil disobedience), I still have the opportunity to argue my case for why the law should be struck down, or why I should receive a discharge or a lesser sentence. And the statutes are responsive to lawful democratic and political forces as well. When I say I believe in a moral duty to abide by the law, I include all of the lawful means to challenge, amend and reform the law. Even civil disobedience, the deliberate breaking of an unjust law to bring about its reform, can be done with a fundamental respect for Law generally.

     It is this fundamental respect for Law generally that I am advocating here as "law-abidingness". A law-abiding person accepts that the law itself is a valid reason for acting, independent of any punishment provisions. One may also consider the punishment provisions as a reason for acting, but to the law-abiding person, punishment cannot be the only reason for obeying the law. Moreover, while the law-abiding person will not require the threat of punishment to comply, she should probably accept that punishment provisions are a pragmatic necessity to ensure that non-law-abiding citizens also comply.
     Punishment is not for law-abiding citizens. True, they may be punished if they break the law just like anyone else, because the law is unable to distinguish between scofflaws and law-abiders who just happen to have broken the law for some reason. Law-abiding people may object to the severity of a particular punishment, or to the content of a particular statute, but they do not object to the fact of punishment in general as a part of the law. The law-abiding person may not be happy about the coercive element of the law, but places the blame not on the law itself but on the non-law-abiding person who makes that coercive element necessary.

     What this means is that the libertarian who objects to a law because it is coercive is not, ultimately, coming from a position of law-abidingness. Of course it is coercive, if you aren't committed to obeying it out of a sense of moral duty! But that is no principled objection. Complaining that the law should not be coercive is really just to complain that there should be no law at all.

     So please, if you're going to make the argument that taxes are bad because they're coercive, don't call yourself a libertarian. Be honest: you're an anarchist.

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