We talked last time about how laws can’t fully embody the ideas they are meant to represent. I’d like to continue that with some more examples and commentary.
Firstly, I want to reiterate that when I say that laws are insufficient for their purported purpose, that’s not the same thing as saying that “laws are bad” or “laws shouldn’t exist.” I’m not saying that. I’m proposing something very specific: laws can’t ever do what they are intended to do. I gave the example last time of drunk driving, and how laws designed to stop it can’t actually do that. All they end up doing is punishing drunk driving after the fact, or preemptively agressing against those who haven’t yet broken the law, including the innocent. And that is not the same thing as stopping it. A law can’t do that. But, if that’s the case, then, from a Christian perspective, why the ten commandments? Why did God tell his people “Thou shall not kill?”
Obviously, it wasn’t because God thought that a law stating “thou shall not kill” would actually stop murder from happening among the Israelites. In fact, if we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, as we discussed yesterday, we see a clearer picture of the law presented by Christ himself. He says:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment;”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
He goes on and gives a few more “you’ve heard X, but I say Y” statements. In this way, He’s clearly showing that each law that they cherished, even if fully adhered to, is still not adequate for meeting the standard that it is derived from. God’s standard is a level of moral and emotional perfection that is so foreign to us that it’s inscrutable. Christ is telling the Jews here that the law wasn’t meant as a measuring stick, but as a whip. Paul confirms this later on in Galatians when he says “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” Put more clearly, the law is for punishment, nothing else.
For that reason, I’m in favor of laws that are geographically local and limited in scope. For instance, I would be in favor of laws and rules in a household set down by parents. After all, the scripture says “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Parents know themselves and their children best and are able to tailor rules that minimize negative side-effects and target particular bad behavior better. I’d be ok with some sort of community rules or laws too, as long as they were few and targeted. Beyond that, I don’t see the point. Once you get beyond the community level, the only laws that do less harm than good are pinpoint targeted laws that are part of the universal moral code already. Things such as “don’t murder” or “don’t steal.” Those things hardly need to be defined as laws by the state. Everyone has those laws burned into them already by virtue of our humanity under God’s common grace. Defining them on paper doesn’t make them any more or less enforceable.
It seems to me that the utility of a law (here I’m speaking of those laws that aren’t just restatements of the universal moral code within each man) is inversely proportional to that law’s geographical scope. That is to say, the more people that fall under the jurisdiction of a particular law, the greater the probability that, that law will do more net harm than good.
For instance, consider a proposed law that bans the trading of financial derivatives. This might seem like a good idea at first, and that it should be applied across the board as a Federal law. But, the fact is that a derivative in and of itself is just a financial instrument to hedge against risk. It has no moral character on it’s on. Some people will use it as a means of reasonably protecting themselves against loss in a responsible manner. Others will use it as a means to overleverage themselves knowing that they can use the taxpayer as a backstop against loss. Banning the sale of derivatives altogether doesn’t stop financial catastrophe from occuring. It just harms those institutions that would have used it wisely.
A better alternative would be for institutions themselves to apply rules about derivative use internally, or perhaps to form working groups with other firms to agree on a set of common rules. Don’t scoff. This happens all of the time. Tell me which government agency developed the USB standard that computers use to connect devices. That’s right. None. The computer industry itself saw the need for a high speed interconnect and developed a working group to address the issue. Manufacturers saw it as being in their best interest and adopted the proposed standard. That’s how these things work. No state was necessary to bring all of that about. And no state is necessary to enforce a law that says “don’t make incompatible USB devices.” It’s not necessary because the firms involved know that if they go off and break the standard, nobody will buy their product.
In the same way, it’s not necessary to have a state that pronounces nation-wide laws. Individuals, families and communities are better equipped to develop laws that are more suited for the problems they face as small people groups. Those types of laws, while not perfect, since no law can be, will at least do less secondary harm.