With all of the attention given to the Bundy Ranch situation recently, a lot of statists have claimed Bundy is in the wrong simply because he’s disobeying the law. They say that people can’t just go around ignoring the laws that they don’t like. What would happen to society if everyone did that?
Well, that depends. Sometimes laws are just too stupid to follow, so much so that even the police won’t harass you if you ignore them. These laws can be so bad that most people probably don’t even realize that they’re breaking them. This is unacceptable to people who argue that citizens have the duty to honor the law because it is the law.
Imagine yourself driving. You come to a stop sign at an intersection. You come to a stop (or you probably don’t considering it’s usually not necessary if you don’t have to wait for other traffic, but that’s another topic for another rule-breaking post), you check to see if anyone else is coming, and then you continue on your way.
Everything’s okay, right? Probably not.
Where did you stop? Did you stop at the stop bar? Or did you do what any reasonable person would do and not come to a stop until you had a reasonable view of traffic in order to cross safely because the stop bars are usually placed too far back from the intersection? I’m not exactly sure what the law is in other states—I’m sure they are all essentially the same—but in Pennsylvania where I live, 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3323.b Duties at stop signs states:
Except when directed to proceed by a police officer or appropriately attired persons authorized to direct, control or regulate traffic, every driver of a vehicle approaching a stop sign shall stop at a clearly marked stop line or, if no stop line is present, before entering a crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if no crosswalk is present, then at the point nearest the intersecting roadway where the driver has a clear view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway before entering. If, after stopping at a crosswalk or clearly marked stop line, a driver does not have a clear view of approaching traffic, the driver shall after yielding the right-of-way to any pedestrian in the crosswalk slowly pull forward from the stopped position to a point where the driver has a clear view of approaching traffic. The driver shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute hazard during the time when the driver is moving across or within the intersection or junction of roadways and enter the intersection when it is safe to do so.
If you don’t stop at the stop sign, you’re breaking the law. According to the “It’s the law!” people, you should be punished for your transgressions and any police officer that doesn’t ticket you isn’t doing his job. That’s silly and any reasonable person can ignore that law in favor of the less ridiculous maneuver of coming to a stop when he has a clear view of traffic. When I was first learning to drive, I remember being explicitly told to not rely on the stop bars—to ignore the law.
There is no breakdown in society because everyone ignores this law.
Of course, someone is bound to ask whether we can ignore every law. Is there a line that can be drawn? If everyone ignored laws about murder and theft, there would be problems. But even if there were no laws aimed at preventing those activities, nearly all people recognize why it’s not a good idea to engage in them. People would take measures to protect themselves from murder and theft, so there wouldn’t be much of a difference in a person’s desire to murder or steal if those laws suddenly disappeared.
There are other laws where this is not the case. We can now look back and see that those who ignored rules like the fugitive slave laws should be regarded as heroes. Those who were law-abiding citizens and followed these laws should be seen as (to put it bluntly) scumbags. Simply following the law is not enough to put one on ethically safe waters.
Maybe we’d be better off if we didn’t rely on what is legal to determine the difference between right and wrong.