Building a Nastier World Through Law

Yesterday’s Fresno Bee contained several Letters to the Editor which help to demonstrate why the world is becoming a nastier place.  Now, to be clear, I don’t believe the people who wrote those letters want the world to be a nastier place.  It’s clear from reading them that they combine a lack of understanding with a belief that their position will contribute to — so they impliedly appear to believe — making the world a better place.

Truth is, this lack of understanding helps make the world nastier.  And not just for the targets of the wrath of these Law & Order types.

People Are Not All Created Equal

Contrary to the lofty ideals of our all-but-forgotten Declaration of Independence, neither all men nor all women are created equal. The reality of life is that people come with differing abilities, world-views and socio-economic support systems that may help or hinder them as they navigate their lives.  This is true in terms of biology. It is true in terms of one’s social environment. And, not surprisingly, the two “forces” interact.

All people are created with equal in terms of having equally unalienable Rights.  “Among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  So our Founders believed.

What Does “Equal” Mean Anyway?

The modern meaning of the word “equal” really is warped, though, compared with that of the Founders.  In some ways, that’s a good thing; in others it’s not only bad, but undermines the noble recognition of equality to which even we today theoretically aspire.

Colonial American interpretations of “equal” clearly had their bad aspects.  At the most extreme, they clearly (and shamefully) did not consider African-Americans — whether forcibly dragged to our shores and enslaved, or “freeman” — to be equal.  Of course, there was also the problem of women’s rights, or the lack thereof.

On the other hand, the early American idea of “equal” carried with it an idea that today would probably be considered — it we still used this term — “seditious.”  These early Americans felt that the fact that they stood on equal footing with others meant that others did not have authority to tell them how to live their lives.  This idea of “liberty” touted by Locke was the understanding of equality which would underpin the American constitutional thought.

Modern View Runs Roughshod Over Individual Rights

Ironically, the modern view of “equal” runs roughshod over individual rights and has more in common with the classical republicanism which in colonial times competed with Lockean liberalism.  However, as Bonwick noted,

In retrospect it is evident that Lockean liberalism and capitalist individualism became the dominant political economy of the following century, yet they failed to destroy their rivals during the formative years of the American Revolution; in particular the theological moral order remained influential as a means of regulating private and public behavior, as did the more clearly secular principles of classical republicanism. (Bonwick, The American Revolution (1991) p.55.)

This religiously-driven view of equality couples with the concomitant lack of knowledge amongst the general populace with regards to biologically- and sociologically-driven differences in capabilities (not to mention economics!) and causes us to mistakenly adopt “one-size-fits-all” understandings of individual rights and responsibilities.  People become fungible; interchangeable because everyone is identical.

Moreover, they’re all like “us.”

Unfortunately, for many of “us,” “they’re all like ‘us'” means “they’re all like ‘me.'”  Whatever standard I hold myself to, that’s the standard everyone without exception is both capable of achieving and must be held accountable for. Among other things, this kind of thinking gives us really stupid rules like “zero tolerance for [fill in your favorite, or least favorite, vice here].”

But more importantly (and more banally) it leads us to not think things through.  Failing to understand that others aren’t socio-economically similar to “us,” we make two mistakes.  First, we fail to recognize the forces that drive people to do things we’d never do (e.g., drive without a license).  Second, we forget that if “we” did suffer some punishment for doing what we should not do, we could handle it, but not everyone could.  Some people’s lives are made worse and they get stuck in a downward spiral from which they simply cannot break free.  Any attempts to break free — by getting a job and driving to work even though you can barely afford the gas, let alone licensing and insurance fees — drags them further down if they get caught.

And let’s be clear about what this really means: their rights are impaired because of the fear that maybe, possibly, someone else’s rights might be impaired if one of these unlicensed, uninsured motorists cause an accident.

The Failure to Recognize and Accommodate for Differences is Unfair and Hypocritical

The failure to see people as our Founders saw them — as individuals entitled to live out their lives within the limited strictures promulgated by a limited government — is both unfair and hypocritical.  It is unfair because it strips people of property and liberty without taking into account their capabilities (or lack thereof).  It is hypocritical because when the tables are turned, we all judge ourselves by a different standard.

No doubt this is why Jesus himself allegedly taught that we should “Stop judging, so that you won’t be judged.”  (Matthew 7:1, The [Christian] Bible, International Standard Version; other translations, plus explanation of the meaning of the verse available here as well.)

I do not for a moment doubt that the same people writing the Letters to the Editor which inspired this blog article break traffic laws nearly every time they climb behind the wheel of their cars.  I know this because as an attorney who actually has read huge portions of the Vehicle Code and as an individual whose job requires a lot of driving, I see people break these laws every time I go out on the road.

There’s no other way to put this: the letter writers who complain about “implicitly giving support to the breaking of the law and a slap in the face to law enforcement and to law-abiding citizens,” or who think this is “the government going after those who choose to drive illegally, [and] it has nothing to do with their socioeconomic background” are, frankly, full of shit.  Lane changes without signalling, making right-turns from left-turn lanes, running stop lights — which I see at least one city bus doing each week — are not legal.  They are also far more dangerous than driving without a license or insurance.  I’ve seen drunk drivers driving more safely than some of “us” law-abiding citizens.  (Hell, I’ve seen drunk drivers driving more safely than some marked patrol cars!)

And if the government impounded cars for breaking the laws that these letter-writing law-abiding citizens break on a daily basis on the pre-text of taking unsafe lane-changing-turning-without-signaling-crossing-three-lanes-of-traffic-at-the-last-minute-refusing-to-allow-traffic-to-merge-safely drivers off the roads, I suspect there’d be a whole lot of squealing.

If We Want This Kind of Equality, Then Let’s Make It Truly Equal & Socialize Automobile Insurance

We, including these letter-writers, think nothing of the government taxing individuals to build roads.  Without roads, driving would be much more difficult and expensive.  Car repairs alone would help shrink the middle-class.  Ironically, while at best around two-thirds of Californians own cars, virtually all Californians pay taxes to support the building of roads, bridges and other infrastructure elements needed only by people who own cars.

Why do we think this is okay?  Because (as already noted) among other things, roads make driving easier and safer.  Safer roads with less cars breaking down result in less accidents, injuries and lower societal costs generally.

So why do we think taxing everyone to make car insurance available to everyone who wants it is not okay?  Because only poor people cannot afford insurance and we don’t care what happens to them.  We already tax the life out of them.  Poor people pay more taxes generally than rich people as a percentage of their income.

And now, letter-writing law-abiding (hahahaha) citizens see no problem with adding to the burden of the poor by charging them large impound fees when they get caught trying to survive, or selling their cars if they can’t pay these new taxes.

But here’s the problem with mistreating the poor, especially when what we’re punishing them for is being poor in the first place:  It makes the world a nastier place.

Frankly, there ought to be a law against it.

Fresno Criminal Defense
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One Response to “Building a Nastier World Through Law”

  1. Tikkun Olam | Unspun™ on January 1st, 2009 8:23 pm

    [...] Last night, on one of my law blogs, I wrote about “Building a Nastier World Through Law.” [...]

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