Laws and Kings
July 30, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     "How small, of all that human hearts endure,
     That part which laws or kings can cause or cure."

     This famous couplet of Samuel Johnson's was recently 
quoted again by Charles Colson, the penitent Watergate 
conspirator who has become a Christian evangelist. These 
words are always worth quoting. But they also need 
qualification.

     Kings -- political rulers in general -- can do 
little to better the human lot. When the ancient 
Israelites wanted a king of their own, the prophet Samuel 
warned them against the whole idea. He told them that a 
king would take their sons, daughters, servants, and 
livestock for his own use, and would make the Israelites 
his slaves; and the Lord would be deaf to their pleas to 
be delivered from the king they had prayed for.

     Yet until modern times, kings could only do moderate 
harm, because they lacked the means of closely 
supervising and controlling large populations. Most of 
human life went on below their radar, as our telling 
phrase puts it.

     So it didn't occur to the old kings to keep tabs on 
their subjects' income, to tell them where they could 
smoke, to fiddle with the money supply, to regulate their 
myriad activities, to keep stupendously detailed records 
of their doings. It wasn't that kings were such nice 
fellows; they could chop off heads when the humor seized 
them. It was just that people used to be a lot harder to 
catch.

     Modern communications, transportation, 
recordkeeping, weaponry, and technology in general have 
changed all human relations, especially political 
relations. Before the twentieth century, a friend of mine 
has observed, the harshest tyranny had less control over 
its subjects than the mildest state has today. Caligula 
was one of the nastiest brutes on record, but he would 
have had a hard time finding any Roman who didn't want to 
be found. Today a police manhunt can usually locate a 
fugitive within hours.

     That sounds fine, as long as you assume that the 
state is merely enforcing just laws against criminals who 
deserve to be caught. As we are all taught in childhood, 
the policeman is your friend. So it should be, and so it 
sometimes is.

     But we have plenty of recent historical evidence 
that the powers of the state may be put to other uses. To 
mention communism should be enough. But even in societies 
that pride themselves on their freedoms, the enforcement 
of law is often haphazard, arbitrary, and pretty nearly 
chaotic. I could tell you some stories, but you probably 
have stories of your own.

     I know of cases where more harm was done by 
punishing criminals than by pardoning them. And I 
gratefully remember a cop who helped me out when he could 
have given me a ticket instead. Technically, he was 
abetting a lawbreaker (the tags on my stalled car were 
expired). But in his benign way, he chose, arbitrarily, 
not to enforce the law as he was supposed to do. (He 
pretended not to notice the tags.) This policeman was my 
friend. But should we have to depend on humanity to trump 
bad laws?

     C.S. Lewis observed that every conquest of nature by 
man is also a conquest of some men by others, with nature 
as its instrument. Our mastery of electricity has enabled 
our rulers to enslave us; the power to fly has increased 
the state's ability to kill great numbers of people. And 
now the prospect of cloning threatens dark new 
possibilities, once beyond the imagination even of 
science fiction.

     Laws and kings may not cure our ills, but they can 
certainly cause them. Dr. Johnson didn't foresee the 
tremendous social disruption the modern state would 
produce. Though a royalist Tory, he assumed that there 
really weren't profound differences between political 
systems. He hated the Whigs as a matter of principle, but 
he didn't think Whig rule would, in practice, be much 
worse than Tory rule. He sensed that at bottom, his Whig 
friends shared his own civilized attitudes.

     Today he would be horrified at the shared beliefs of 
Tories and Labor, Democrats and Republicans, quarreling 
not over whether the state should have limitless power, 
but over how it should be used. Nearly all Western men 
and women now acquiesce in what men of Johnson's time 
would recognize as tyranny -- that is, political 
enslavement.

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