Law vs. morality in America

It is time to recognize that law is for the lazy and weak what morality is for the strong. What is needed therefore is not more law but a renewed emphasis on personal responsibility and self-discipline. While we accede to, if not glorify, the individual who imposes his will on others, we do virtually nothing to reward the responsible individual who keeps his house in order, who imposes his will on no one, who seeks not to transgress the norms of society.

As George Canning once entreated:

"Away from the cant of 'measures, not men'! -- the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariot along."

Accompanying the profusion of laws that increasingly have come to dominate. American society has been an inexorable moral decay. This cause-effect relationship has been more than coincidental, for each time a law is enacted, individuals are absolved of responsibility for another moral decision. To create a law is, in effect, to wash one's hands of an issue, to say that "I no longer can be bothered; let the cops and the courts worry about it." Curiously, this same mentality has manifested itself in a spate of government programs ill-supported by adequate implementation.

Ours was founded as a nation of laws, the underlying premise being that law and justice are equitable. But experience has shown this to be less than true. The examples are legion of a system that not infrequently has protected the perpetrator while further wronging the victim. The systemm in fact has displaced the valuem in importance and has permeated virtually all aspects of American life.

One wonders why such an inversion, so contrary to our natural sense of justice, has been allowed to occur. Many must share the blame: the legislators for their lack of creativity in relying on legislation to the near-exclusion of other, more dynamic for their lack of courage in adhering almost obsessively to precedent; and, most of all, the silent majority for their general disinterest and acquiescence.

All of us, in turn, whether out of apathy or ignorance, have been overly dependent on negative sanctions in lieu of positive incentives and rewards. And we have subscribed to an egalitarian ethic that dictates equal treatment before the law, not out of any particular sense of justice, but rather to accomodate the subtle technicalities of the legal system. Too little have we granted credence to the words of Jonathan Swift, who observed: "The injustice done to an individual is sometimes of service to the public."

Throughout history, the few have dominated the many. Laws have derived from the abuses of these few and have fed the belief that the few reflect the whole, that people cannot be expected to behave otherwise. The unintended effect is that the belief may become self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, the resort to laws reinforces this control by the few, for it is they who care sufficiently to manipulate the law to their own ends.

Perhaps most important, laws -- and their offspring, regulations -- reduce all men to the lowest common denominator. Rather than living in accordance with a collective ethic that evolves over time, the majority are forced to live within the strictures imposed in response to the aberrant behavior of the few. What once were questions of "right or wrong" now become ones of "legal or illegal." The result is twofold: On the one hand, man is absolved of responsibility for dealing with the problem face to face; on the other hand, the near-inevitable reaction for the prudent man, in order to act according to reason, is to adhere to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. In so doing, he crosses the threshold from morality to immorality.

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