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Laws and Kings

July 30, 2002

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.

[Breaker quote: How technological progress enslaves us]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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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