Law and Liberty

Law comprises the rules which circumscribe human behavior. Law in the United States is mainly an amalgam of two things:

  • widely observed social norms that have not yet been undermined by government
  • governmental decrees that shape behavior because they (a) happen to reflect social norms or (b) are backed by a credible threat of enforcement.

Law — whether socially evolved or government-imposed — is morally legitimate only when it conduces to liberty; that is, when

  • it applies equally to all persons in a given social group or legal jurisdiction
  • an objector may freely try to influence law (voice)
  • an objector may freely leave a jurisdiction whose law offends him (exit).

Unequal treatment means the denial of negative rights on some arbitrary basis (e.g., color, gender, income). As long as negative rights are not denied, then a norm of voluntary discrimination (on whatever basis) is a legitimate exercise of the negative right to associate with persons of one’s choosing, whether as a matter of personal or commercial preference (the two cannot be separated). True liberty encompasses social distinctions, which are just as much the province of “minorities” and “protected groups” as they are of the beleaguered white male of European descent, whose main sin seems to have been the creation of liberty and prosperity in this country.

Law is not morally legitimate where equal treatment, voice, or exit are denied or suppressed by force or the threat of force. Nor is law morally legitimate where incremental actions of government (e.g., precedential judicial rulings) effectively deny voice and foreclose exit as a viable option.

If government-made law ever had moral legitimacy in the United States, the zenith of its legitimacy came in 1905:

[T]he majority opinion in [Lochner v. New York] came as close as the Supreme Court ever has to protecting a general right to liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Rufus Peckham affirmed that the Constitution protected “the right of the individual to his personal liberty, or to enter into those contracts in relation to labor which may seem to him appropriate or necessary for the support of himself and his family.” (Randy Barnett,  “Is the Constitution Libertarian?,” p. 5)


Beginning in the 1930s, the Supreme Court reversed its approach in Lochner and adopted a presumption of constitutionality whenever a statute restricted unenumerated liberty rights. [See O’Gorman & Young, Inc. v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co. (1931).] In the 1950s it made this presumption effectively irrebuttable. [See Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma (1955).] Now it will only protect those liberties that are listed, or a very few unenumerated rights such as the right of privacy. But such an approach violates the Ninth Amendment’s injunction against using the fact that some rights are enumerated to deny or disparage others because they are not. (Barnett, op. cit, pp. 17-18)

This bare outline summarizes the governmental acts and decrees that stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power and usurped social norms. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment, and in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal character has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, we have discovered — too late — that we are impotent captives in our own land.

Voice is now so circumscribed by “settled law” that there is a null possibility of restoring Lochner and its ilk. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt.

As Thomas Jefferson observed in 1774,

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematic plan of reducing [a people] to slavery.

Having been subjected to a superficially benign form of slavery by our central government, we must look to civil society and civil disobedience for morally legitimate law. Civil society, as I have written, consists of

the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa…. [Civil society is necessary to liberty] because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism).

That is civil society. And it is civil society which … government ought to protect instead of usurping and destroying as it establishes its own agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions.

When government fails to protect civil society — and especially when government destroys it — civil disobedience is in order. If civil disobedience fails, more drastic measures are called for:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup. (Thomas Sowell, writing at National Review Online, May 1, 2007)

In Jefferson’s version,

when wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality.

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