Laws and Kings
July 30, 2002
How small, of all that
human hearts endure,
This famous couplet of Samuel Johnsons
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.
That part which laws or
kings can cause or cure.
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 didnt
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 wasnt 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.
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 didnt 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
states 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
didnt foresee the tremendous social disruption the modern state
would produce. Though a royalist Tory, he assumed that there really
werent profound differences between political systems. He hated
the Whigs as a matter of principle, but he didnt 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 Johnsons time would recognize as
tyranny that is, political enslavement.