Contributed by Wes Keller
I finally tackled the job of sifting and sorting through thirty boxes of files, books, reports and accolades - a retired legislator’s accumulation of office “wealth”. The files represent years of research, vote history, opposition and support testimony for dozens of bills. Some are now law, and some represent unfinished intentions. I admit that the huge bonfire and the boxes stacked for book recycling put me in a somber mood and caused me to ponder the nature and value of law. What did the years of service invested in the legislature by myself and my staff really accomplish in the universal scale of things? Is making law really worth the effort? Predictably, I think of “legislating” as a noble calling. I found it to be rewarding to create, delete and maintain laws for the good of the people, but what good is law anyway?
At one level, civil law is merely an accumulation of negotiated restrictions we place on ourselves to enable us to live together... to peacefully coexist. On the other hand, it can be a tool for bullying elements of our society who, for whatever reason, don’t effectively participate in legislative negotiations.
Anyone who knows anything about our constitution knows the founders went to copious lengths to ensure a lawmaking process giving everyone an equal opportunity to participate. The basic theory was that if everyone really gets representation, we will end up with “good” laws to be proud of, laws reflecting reality and wisdom for the good of the people.
Our Declaration of Independence speaks of “laws of nature” presumed to be the only valid basis for good law - inseparable from “Nature’s God”, the source of inherent human rights. Ancient Biblical writers spoke of “delighting” in law because of its benefits! While I think I “delight” in law, I admit to having accumulated some cynicism because of disappointment in the general lack of commitment of legislators and constituents to align with nature’s law. I witnessed the legislature sometimes choosing to not do what they knew was “right” and their constituents tolerating and even re-electing them!
As a society, we seem to be drifting from following what we know is true! I fully realize in our culture, a statement about another’s lack of adherence to any standard of morality and truth (like I just made) is offensive. Some of you likely even react with anger at my implication that I know what is right and wrong and you may not. Your offense has a good reason. There has never been a shortage of those who try to control others by claiming to have the inside corner on morality and truth. When truth claims are used to control others, it is truly evil as revealed in the standard I use! But, the fact that some use the law as a bludgeon does not mean there is no moral basis for law and we cannot know and understand this moral base. The drive to control others by presuming moral superiority reveals conceit and arrogance. We can easily see this in others, it is not quite so evident for us to see in ourselves. Unfortunately, it is normal human nature to be incredulously sure about what others should say or do, while we resent having the word “should” pointed at us. We dislike pious control freaks and are not eager to think of ourselves in this way. Human behavior and abuse does not change what is right or wrong, but it can pollute our understanding of right and wrong. Good law cannot be made without making moral judgments. Good law is the basis for our “Rule of Law” and is aligned with natural law. It is ludicrous to think legislative negotiation should not include discussion and application (or not) of moral absolutes.
Consider our Bill of Rights. It reveals the incredible value of the “Thou shalt nots...” reflected in our law. We know we have a right to live because we know it is evil to murder! The link between the right and the moral absolute is a rational, logical deduction. We instinctively know we have a right to own and protect our property because we know it is evil to steal! We have the right to liberty and equal protection under the law because it is morally wrong to consider some people worth more or less than others.
Civil law, based on what is morally right, is the basis for a prosperous, secure and peaceful society. Conversely, most of our Alaskan troubles, including our fiscal woes are the result of bad laws enabling wrongs, such as spending more than we make. In any case, our government puts full responsibility for making good laws on elected legislators, who ultimately impose upon the values of their constituents. We suffer partly because we do not dispassionately deliberate on what has wrongly been characterized as religious dogma. Most of us drift into this irrationality by trying to avoid offense and complying with what we think is “politically correct”. It is wrong to be intimidated by those who are poised to shriek “foul” when they feel threatened by imposed values.
“Delighting in the law” on the other hand, has some interesting perversions. There is a human tendency to join the “hall monitor cult” and to delight in catching someone breaking a rule! This perverted perspective is ancient and has been labeled “pharisaical” after a legalistic religious sect. It gives no allowance for the underlying intent of a law, for human frailty, for forgiveness and mercy or for the unintended consequences of “bad” law. Again, this tendency can seem obvious in others, but not so much in ourselves. And again, denial and lack of dispassionate consideration actually perpetuates creation of bad law.
If we think too hard about law and its source, it becomes a mirror in which we see ourselves, which then takes courage to study the reflection. I’m convinced “Nature’s law” cannot be harmed by ham-fisted legislators, but we pay a heavy price when we create “modern” laws ignoring the valuable principles found in it. The definition of “natural law” has become obscure to today’s students; and absurdly, transparent consideration of it has somehow become offensive! We would all do well to read our Declaration and to contemplate the theory of law it presumes!
Wes Keller | WesKeller.com