Saturday, March 31, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part III, Chapter 9




In most cases our inquiry would stop here. Having examined the whole field of the law, and finding it, in all cases, and under all circumstances, operating to the disadvantage of the mass of the people, plundering the poor and industrious, promoting and producing the very evils it would ostensibly ward off, and setting up and maintaining a class of rich and idle ones in the enjoyment of special privileges, this ought to be sufficient to condemn it. But it is not. People have so long been taught to fall down and worship the fetish of the law, and ascribe to it all the benefits they enjoy, that whoever attacks it must destroy its last citadel of strength before men will realize that their fetish is only a fetish, and instead of protecting them, it offers a convenient means of enabling others to prey upon them.

We will now take a look at the way laws are made, and see if there is anything in it that would throw any degree of sanctity around legal enactments.

Quickly passing over the schemes, intrigues, false pretenses, corrupt bargains, and trickery, if not actual fraud, which are a natural and necessary part of politics by which legislators are chosen; taking note of the character of the men who are chosen: men generally ignorant of all save how to flatter and cajole the ignorant, while giving no cause of alarm to the rich, we will come at once to the process of law making. Bagehot says: “The cure for admir. ing the English House of Lords is to go and look at it;” and I apprehend that the cure for respecting the law is to go and see the making of it. [278]

There are two sources from which the first suggestion of a law can come: one is from some person, class, or interest which sees, or thinks it sees, an advantage to itself which would come from its passage. Naturally, that person, or those persons do not go about proclaiming the advantage they expect to reap. That is kept in the back-ground; and every effort is made to hide it. Specious arguments are put forward to make it appear of public importance. Press and pulpit are enlisted, and all the agencies by which public sentiment is made. This is the course adopted where the circumstances admit of it: such as the building of a great public improvement, the holding of a world’s fair, or the levying of some new tax. It is only after the improvement has been begun, as in the case of the Chicago drainage canal, that the public finds that those who are benefited are the officers and contractors, and the syndicate which obtained options on the land along the route. The people must foot the bills by way of taxation, and then if they get any benefit from it, they must pay over again in rents to the landlords, or higher price for the land. If a world’s fair is wanted, that too is boomed as a great public benefit. The public is wheedled, cajoled, and bullied into its support; workingmen are almost coerced into subscribing for the stock; and taxes are voted in lavish profusion. Then what a delightful time all this supplies to an almost endless horde of very high-priced officials, in banquets, entertainments, excursions, foreign missions, honors, titles, and expenses, to the tune of a million dollars a month, for all of which the people must pay in taxes; and then, if that public wants to get any benefit from the fair,—wishes even to take a look at it, it must pay over again at the gate. The poor are made to believe that such a fair will be a great advantage to them; and then, when it brings a horde of workmen from other cities to keep wages down [279] to starvation rates, and squeezes up their rents until general public distress ensues, the only answer monopoly or the law gives to their complaint is to increase the police force, again at their expense, to suppress any expression of discontent.

Where the legislation sought is the granting of a franchise of such a character as will not bear too close a scrutiny, more covert methods are adopted. It may not even be discussed publicly at all. It is then suggested privately to some member, and inducements offered, which neither party is anxious to parade before the public, such as granting of franchises by the Chicago City Council.

The second source from which suggestions of laws may come is from ignorant but well meaning people, who see evils in society, and who think they see how those evil s are to be corrected. Naturally self-asserting, and thirsting for distinction, they busy themselves with the affairs of others, assuming that it is their province to make men over again after such improved patterns as they are able to furnish. These pestiferous meddlers serve monopoly almost as usefully as its direct tools, because they keep the public busied with their schemes and speculations, and thus divert them from their own miseries, and the cause of them. To such, monopoly always contributes a certain degree of honor, flattery, and cash. Liberal subscriptions can always be depended upon to promote agitations like that of temperance, and prohibition, or any form of religious propaganda; anything to keep the people amused and interested.

Now, with ignorant legislators, schooled mostly in the arts of practical politics, their very positions being a certificate of proficiency in those arts, and with interested schemers, or ignorant meddlers as prompters, what may people expect? Just what they get: laws made in the interest of special classes, or impertinent interference in private [280] affairs, and all gross violations of the freedom of the people. In matters affecting party politics a few party leaders govern, who take their inspiration from the great interests which stand behind them. Those interests govern the leaders, the leaders govern the party, and the party governs the people. The legislature bows to the same power. It merely registers its edicts. Were it not so, did each member of a legislative body undertake to bring to the performance of his duties, to the making of the laws, his own best individual judgment, the diversity of thought and sentiment which would be developed would be such that no agreement could be reached, and no progress whatever could be made. At the very best, popular governments must represent purely mediocrity, or selfish greed. The average must be low. Unlike a monarchy it will be free from the occasional supremacy of a driveling idiot; but it will always bow to the sway of active and capable private interests. And this is just as true in municipal management and legislation, as in state and national affairs. To what depths of rascality, what brazen effrontery in open corruption, what scandals in the passage of laws, and other scandals which never reach the public, such a legislature, constituted as all legislative bodies must be constituted, is capable of, let the possibilities of the combination suggest. The acme of shame is reached when one of the members or a lobbyist, goes into court and sues other members for his share of corruption funds collected for their common benefit, as was reported to nave been done in one state recently.

And yet, people accord the action of such bodies a degree of respect which surpasses belief. They even visit upon those who refuse obedience to their dictates the vengeance of the law, degrade- them, stigmatize them as criminals, outlaw them, and make them infamous. Government, or law, is said [281] to be founded upon the consent of the governed; but the passage of a law, like the contracting of a public debt, is justly binding only upon those who consent to it. And even if all were to consent, it could not bind the next child born. There is absolutely no way in which a law can be enacted, just as there is no way in which a public debt can be contracted, which is binding upon the people, in justice. Nor is it necessary. In most of the essential affairs of life men do govern themselves. If government is necessary in some things, why not in all? And if in some, and not in all, where draw the line?

Yet they say, “it is better to obey a bad law while it remains a law, than to violate it," which I deny. Obedience means submission, which is contrary to the spirit of liberty. Monopoly will always teach submission, depending upon its well known resources to prevent repeal. The oftener a law is violated the sooner it will be repealed or ignored.

To understand how impotent law is to remove evils, or correct abuses, we must consider, not only the manner in which legislators are chosen, and the influences to which they are exposed, but the further fact, that it is always impossible to know what will be the ultimate effect of any law which can be passed. The legislator has to deal with infinitely diverse materials of whose nature he can know nothing. In chemistry we may mix two cold liquids, and they become boiling hot; two clear ones may produce on opaque mud. Water in sulphurous acid freezes even on a hot plate. So among men, results are obtained by law which were impossible to foresee. This has been especially pointed out by Herbert Spencer, who says: “There is no truth more obvious than that generation after generation must pass before the outcome of an action that has been set up can be seen.” Seemingly little [282] things are far reaching in their results, and require a long lapse of time to observe their effects.

Sometimes however, the effect comes sooner than expected, and in a way least looked for. In Texas the farmers hoped to remedy some of their troubles by law, and secured the passage of an alien land- law. The effect was as prompt as fire applied to a powder-mill. They received notice that from $50,000,000 to $75,000,000, of foreign capital invested in Texas would be withdrawn, which would render it difficult for farmers to renew their mortgages, and would bring financial disaster upon the state. The revulsion in sentiment was quick. Those who had been foremost in demanding the “reform” were the ones most anxious to be rid of it, after they had obtained it.

The English poor laws, originally passed to discourage idleness, and prevent mendicancy, and also to meet the case of beggars too feeble to serve, is another instance where the law has produced exactly contrary effects from those intended. The people in the districts where the indigent were found were made responsible for them. Afterward the law was slightly modified to meet the cases of increasing vagrancy which the law, although establishing the severest penalties, was powerless to suppress. So severe was the law that even death, without benefit of clergy, was enacted against the vagrants. But it is reported that now, after 250 years, the law has come to be the most potent means of encouraging idleness. “The poor fund is regarded as an inexhaustible one belonging to the indigent.” The recipients bully and intimidate the officers; the women show their bastards, for which they get a pension of 1s. 6d. a week each, while honest girls starve.

In France, about the middle of the present century it was discovered that the tax of about eight cents a quart on wine had reduced the consumption [283] of wine more than one third. As a result the wine dealers were overstocked with wine which they could not sell. One of the principal industries in France was prostrated, and produced wide spread hard times. About the same time it was found that the duties laid upon the importation of cattle had decreased the consumption of meat by the people in about the same ratio as the diminished consumption of wine, with the effect that the French workmen did less work than the English, because they were not as well fed.

But we do not have to go so far away from home to see tile baneful effects of the law. Laws which were ostensibly enacted to protect the interest of our own shipping, have completely destroyed it: have driven American ships from the seas. Laws have also been enacted for the protection of manufactures; and the same thing is taking place there. However, in this case, there are other influences which operate to sustain it, and counteract this tendency: that is, the improvements in methods of production. Invention is progressing at a rapid rate; and the production of wealth generally is therefore able to withstand a greater strain of taxation than would otherwise be the case. But for people who are being devoured by the law, to clamor for more law, is like a drowning man crying “fire!”

Go where we will, it: this country or any other, under any form of government that may exist, whatever reforms have been adopted have been either in the actual repeal of law, in concession to pressure from without, or in the violent destruction of law by revolution. It has never been by positive enactment other than by repeal. Revolutions sometimes destroy one form of government, but either through the desire of leaders to govern on their own account, or through the ignorance of the people of the true principles of liberty, they have set up [284] others in place of those destroyed, which in time became as bad as the first. But enacted reforms have always been through repeal, and always as a concession to pressure from without.

That no hope is to be expected of the amelioration of present conditions, by the action of legislators in the adoption of reforms, may be inferred, first, from the ignorance and training of the men who make the laws; second, from the influences they are under, and to which they owe their places, and third, from this historic fact, that no reforms are ever brought about in that way.

Henry Thomas Buckle says: "No great political improvement, no great reform, either legislative or executive, has ever been originated in any country by its rulers. The first suggesters of such steps have invariably been bold and able thinkers, who discern the abuse, denounce it, and point out how it may be remedied. But long after this is done, even the most enlightened governments continue to uphold the abuse, and reject the remedy. At length, if circumstances are favorable, the pressure from without becomes so strong, that the government is obliged to give way; and, the reform being accomplished, the people are expected to admire the wisdom of their rulers by whom all this has been done.”

Again, “The most valuable additions made to legislation have been enactments destructive of previous legislation; and the best laws which have been passed, have been those by which some former laws were repealed. . . . . . But, it is absurd, it would be mockery of all sound reasoning, to ascribe to legislation any share in the progress; or to expect any benefit from future legislators, except that sort of benefit which consists in undoing the work of their predecessors.”

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