The View From 1776

There Ought To Be A Law?

Liberalism’s preference for liberty as unrestrained hedonism is a down-hill run toward social disorder that paradoxically necessitates far more legal restraints upon personal conduct than the colonists needed to regulate the society that produced the founding principles of the United States.

Socialist novelist Jack London was the co-founder in 1905 of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.  His most famous novel, “The Call of the Wild,” was an echo of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Noble savage” theme, in a North American wilderness setting, idealizing the purity of animal instincts outside organized society.  In the secular world of Darwinian evolution, humans are animals basically the same as any other beast: they seek to escape restraints and to satisfy instincts for sensual pleasure.

As with most of liberal-socialism, however, this bears no resemblance to reality.  What happens instead when the customs, traditions, and moral principles of society are ripped away, as liberal-socialists aim to do in the name of “freedom,” is more accurately described by Thomas Hobbes in his “Leviathan.”  In the state of nature, he wrote, life is nasty, brutish, and short. 

Such is the nature of the hedonistic variety of “liberty” espoused by liberals under the agenda of sexual promiscuity, abortion, social use of hallucinatory drugs, and in-your-face rudeness to traditionalists who still recognize that God, not man, created the universe.  In liberal theory, criminal behavior is not the criminal’s fault, but the fault of the social structure that fails to redistribute property equally, without regard to work or merit.

This illuminates the inescapable contradiction in liberals’ confusion of license with liberty.  A moment’s reflection will tell you that, if everyone does anything that he wants to do, without consideration for the interests of others, chaos results.  Life becomes unending warfare as each person struggles to protect his family, property and political rights.

This explains why Hobbes then concluded that humanity’s greatest benefactor is the strong ruler who, with sword in hand, forces his subjects to bend to his will.  No matter how cruel or arbitrary his rule may be, it is better than lawless rioting and slaughter in the streets.

There is, of course, a clear alternative that worked well for nearly two thousand years:  political societies based on religious and moral principles, societies in which both ruler and ruled looked to God for guidance, societies in which the individual was taught that he had a personal moral duty to do unto his neighbors as he wished them to deal with him.

Liberals have junked all that in the name of scientific rationalism, believing that Thomas Hobbes’s iron-fisted ruler can actually perfect society, provided that he is a worshipper at the altar of secular socialism.

The following article, which appeared in the May 22, 2005, edition of the New York Times Magazine, suggests that even liberals, however dimly, perceive the dilemma they have created.

May 22, 2005

There Ought to Be a Law?

Nineteen-year-old Kerry McLaughlin has received more than 100 complaints about the loud parties she has held in her apartment near Newcastle, England, over the past 18 months. It has been said that she invites 10-year-olds to get drunk, smashes windows and heaves trash cans at cars. But it was only after she roped a male acquaintance naked to a nearby lamppost and left him there that British tabloids started calling her an ‘‘ASBO queen.’’

ASBO is an acronym for the ‘‘anti-social behavior orders’’ that have been introduced by the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has promised to extend them in the third term he won in elections earlier this month. An ASBO is a kind of esoteric injunction that bans people from highly specific acts that fall just this side of criminality. Kerry McLaughlin’s order, for instance, threatened her with jail if she had more than two guests over after 10 at night.

Civil libertarians warn that there is little restraint on the imposition of ASBO’s, and 97 percent of those requested are approved by court authorities. Some law-and-order politicians want the courts taken out of the equation altogether, so that you can be slapped with an ASBO on a policeman’s say-so. They are proliferating. The Guardian reports that a suicidal young woman who tried to drown herself in the Avon got an ASBO that forbids her from jumping into any rivers. Two teenage gang members have to stay out of certain neighborhoods in Gloucester until they turn 24. A girl suspected of shoplifting has an ASBO that will land her in jail if she wears a hooded sweatshirt to hide her face. Britons have long managed to balance a need for order with a tendency toward eccentricity. With astonishing speed, the state has gone into the business of micromanaging morality.

But there is nothing particularly British about this reassessment. In the United States, and indeed all over the West, citizens are demanding that politicians consider imposing sanctions on behavior that has heretofore been considered annoying but not criminal. Rolled eyes and tut-tutting have proved insufficient to restrain spitters, swearers, talkers-in-class, bad neighbors, slobs, loud-music/players and wearers of skimpy clothing. Increasingly the police are called, and society has not figured out what it expects the cops to do when they get there.

The change reflects, in part, an expanding conception of what constitutes a violation of others’ rights, as smokers, office Romeos and those who do not buckle their kids into car seats have discovered. Also at work is the ‘‘broken windows’’ theory that nasty habits are the seedbed of petty crime and petty crime is the seedbed of mayhem. Yes, efforts in this direction can appear ridiculous, like laws mandating that toy guns have fluourescent orange parts. But they sound less ridiculous when you give them two seconds’ thought. In general, citizens clamor for such measures. Rudy Giuliani’s sandblasting of graffiti and his crackdown on subway turnstile-jumpers were imitated by Nicolas Sarkozy when he was France’s interior minister—a main reason that Sarkozy is now the front-runner for the French presidency in 2007. American laws on smoking, long mocked in nearly all Western countries as an outrageous trespass against individual liberty, are today being taken up even more zealously in Ireland and Italy.

The cost to our liberty for these benefits is high. There is an increasing tendency to ban people from doing precisely the kind of things that people used to do while saying ‘‘It’s a free country.’’ You may not even have to commit the trespass yourself: it has been proposed that dog owners be ASBO-ed for an unruly dog and parents ASBO-ed for the truancy or delinquency of their children. Matters were further complicated last year when activists nearly persuaded the House of Lords to ban parents from ‘‘smacking’’ (spanking) their children. It seemed to bewildered parents that they might be held criminally liable both for disciplining their children and for not disciplining them.

Public willingness to tolerate such inconsistencies suggests that a kind of desperate bargain is being struck. Certainly, most humans would rather live according to customs than by keeping a list of penalties in their pockets. And yet ASBO’s and other such innovations are an acknowledgment that many customs have lost their force. There are few community assumptions that people respect enough to follow. So the law is colonizing much of what used to be handled by families and other informal authorities. Look at dress codes against jeans in American schools or against the veil in French ones. A backbench Labor MP even submitted a Rite of Passage Bill last year that would have required a civic-education-orientated coming-of-age ceremony at 14, which he called ‘‘a nonreligious bar mitzvah for all.’’ These are all attempts to promote sentiments of community when such sentiments do not arise spontaneously.

Citizens support this awkward mix of ‘‘hard’’ law and ‘‘soft’’ community-building not because they are hypocrites but because they are of two minds. They seem to hope that government can give a ‘‘helping hand’’ to natural processes of community formation, and that once people have relearned neighborly habits, the straitjacket of law will fall away and leave us once more in the comfy old cardigan of custom. Until people do that relearning, though, there is a risk that such laws will grow unreasonably broad and unreasonably tough (to the point where you risk jail by lighting a cigarette or jumping in the Avon). Laws, after all, are created and enforced by individuals. And a society made up of individuals who are no longer restrained by families and communities and who have never learned to restrain themselves is unlikely to be any more judicious about administering laws than it is about turning that damn stereo down.

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing writer for the The New York Times Magazine.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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