February 14, 2004

Actual Scholarship

Posted by shonk at 02:50 AM in Economics, Politics | TrackBack

Over the last couple days, I’ve been doing a lot of work and a lot of reading, but not very much writing. I hope you’ll excuse me for merely providing links to two very thought-provoking articles. If you have the time, I strongly recommend reading both. If you only read one, I would encourage you to read the second (especially you law school types). And yes, it’s a complete coincidence that both are written by professors at George Mason.

“Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist”, by Bryan Caplan.

“The Myth of the Rule of Law”, by John Hasnas.

An excerpt from the Hasnas article:

If four generations of jurisprudential scholars have shown that the rule of law is a myth, why does the concept still command such fervent commitment? The answer is implicit in the question itself, for the question recognizes that the rule of law is a myth and like all myths, it is designed to serve an emotive, rather than cognitive, function. The purpose of a myth is not to persuade one’s reason, but to enlist one’s emotions in support of an idea. And this is precisely the case for the myth of the rule of law; its purpose is to enlist the emotions of the public in support of society’s political power structure.

People are more willing to support the exercise of authority over themselves when they believe it to be an objective, neutral feature of the natural world. This was the idea behind the concept of the divine right of kings. By making the king appear to be an integral part of God’s plan for the world rather than an ordinary human being dominating his fellows by brute force, the public could be more easily persuaded to bow to his authority. However, when the doctrine of divine right became discredited, a replacement was needed to ensure that the public did not view political authority as merely the exercise of naked power. That replacement is the concept of the rule of law.

People who believe they live under “a government of laws and not people” tend to view their nation’s legal system as objective and impartial. They tend to see the rules under which they must live not as expressions of human will, but as embodiments of neutral principles of justice, i.e., as natural features of the social world. Once they believe that they are being commanded by an impersonal law rather than other human beings, they view their obedience to political authority as a public-spirited acceptance of the requirements of social life rather than mere acquiescence to superior power. In this way, the concept of the rule of law functions much like the use of the passive voice by the politician who describes a delict on his or her part with the assertion “mistakes were made.” It allows people to hide the agency of power behind a facade of words; to believe that it is the law which compels their compliance, not self-aggrandizing politicians, or highly capitalized special interests, or wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, or _______________ (fill in your favorite culprit).

But the myth of the rule of law does more than render the people submissive to state authority; it also turns them into the state’s accomplices in the exercise of its power. For people who would ordinarily consider it a great evil to deprive individuals of their rights or oppress politically powerless minority groups will respond with patriotic fervor when these same actions are described as upholding the rule of law.

Consider the situation in India toward the end of British colonial rule. At that time, the followers of Mohandas Gandhi engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by manufacturing salt for their own use in contravention of the British monopoly on such manufacture. The British administration and army responded with mass imprisonments and shocking brutality. It is difficult to understand this behavior on the part of the highly moralistic, ever-so-civilized British unless one keeps in mind that they were able to view their activities not as violently repressing the indigenous population, but as upholding the rule of law.

The same is true of the violence directed against the nonviolent civil rights protestors in the American South during the civil rights movement. Although much of the white population of the southern states held racist beliefs, one cannot account for the overwhelming support given to the violent repression of these protests on the assumption that the vast majority of the white Southerners were sadistic racists devoid of moral sensibilities. The true explanation is that most of these people were able to view themselves not as perpetuating racial oppression and injustice, but as upholding the rule of law against criminals and outside agitators. Similarly, since despite the . 60s rhetoric, all police officers are not “fascist pigs,” some other explanation is needed for their willingness to participate in the “police riot” at the 1968 Democratic convention, or the campaign of illegal arrests and civil rights violations against those demonstrating in Washington against President Nixon’s policies in Vietnam, or the effort to infiltrate and destroy the sanctuary movement that sheltered refugees from Salvadorian death squads during the Reagan era or, for that matter, the attack on and destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. It is only when these officers have fully bought into the myth that “we are a government of laws and not people,” when they truly believe that their actions are commanded by some impersonal body of just rules, that they can fail to see that they are the agency used by those in power to oppress others.

The reason why the myth of the rule of law has survived for 100 years despite the knowledge of its falsity is that it is too valuable a tool to relinquish. The myth of impersonal government is simply the most effective means of social control available to the state.


The article on Law was very thought provoking. Several observations come to mind. Is non legislated law better than legislated law?
Non- legislated law, voluntarily agreed upon is not so voluntary. If I go to a college that has a speech code far more restrictive than the first amendment in that it might forbid speech that might make certain people (gays, women etc.) uncomfortable, is that an improvement over usual restrictions on the first amendment such as not shouting “fire” in a crowded theater? I could always go to another college, but if the one in question meets my needs, I can attend only if I agree to watch what I say.
You own a house and the property owner’s agreement (that you have never seen) says that you can have a 3 ft. fence, but not a 4 ft. fence. My dog can jump a 3 ft. fence but there are leash laws. Now what? How is this an improvement over the usual rule of law? Do I have to move or sell my dog? It seems to me that the real problem is that there are too many laws, and regulations and they proliferate endlessly. Every year legislatures meet, regulators issue new regulations, new court decisions are handed down, professional groups pass new requirements, all well intentioned, but cumulatively more and more oppressive. Legal process overwhelms common sense. Teachers can’t discipline. Cops can’t keep order. It all has to be settled by the law.
Also, for historical accuracy, the example of the repression of blacks trying to integrate public facilities was a bit exaggerated. There were examples of real brutality in Mississippi and Alabama that are remembered. In Atlanta, it was more like the typical anti- abortion or anti-war demonstrations you have read about. Black students and others sought service in restaurants and were told to leave, but they refused. Invoking private property rights, owners had them arrested for trespassing. No one got hurt. The federal government invoked laws guaranteeing public accommodations, taking the position that the restaurants were violation federal law, and prevailed in court. This is a perfect example of the point in the article about political the uses of law. But sometimes the results aren’t so bad. Also, the restaurant owners benefited because they ended up with more customers.

Posted by: Dave at February 18, 2004 08:54 PM