Tuesday, December 04, 2007

There Ought (Not) to Be a Law!

Reading Lileks today reminded me of a line from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Harvard commencement address. (Not the part about Ed Sullivan. Scroll down to the paragraph that begins "Instapundit noted this ABC story: divorce hurts the planet" and read on from there.)

One of the primary conservative impulses is to resist the urge to outlaw everything that is bad. This is usually defended in libertarian terms, with the freedom of the individual elevated as the highest (or at least, higher) good. But Solzhenitsyn's address suggests a critique from the opposite direction: the urge to outlaw every bad thing correlates with the attitude that whatever is legal is good. Read the whole address here, but the paragraph I'm thinking of is excerpted below:

Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.

My question, then, is this: How can we fight the notion that "If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required"?

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