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Unjust Laws and Obligations

By Dan Mitchell.

After World War II, some Germans tried to defend venal behavior by claiming that they were “just following orders” from their government. Governments in America have never done anything nearly as awful as the Nazis, but there certainly are some very unpleasant blemishes in our past – and some very bad laws today.

This raises an interesting moral quandary. To what extent are we – as moral individuals – obliged to obey (or help enforce) bad law?

As is so often the case, Walter Williams has strong feelings and compelling analysis.
Decent people should not obey immoral laws. What’s moral and immoral can be a contentious issue, but there are some broad guides for deciding what laws and government actions are immoral. Lysander S. Spooner, one of America’s great 19th-century thinkers, said no person or group of people can “authorize government to destroy or take away from men their natural rights; for natural rights are inalienable, and can no more be surrendered to government — which is but an association of individuals — than to a single individual.” French economist/philosopher Frederic Bastiat (1801-50) gave a test for immoral government acts: “See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” He added in his book “The Law,” “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”
I don’t pretend to know where to draw the line, but, as suggested by my posts about jury nullification, I fully subscribe to the libertarian principle that “not everything that’s illegal is immoral, and not everything that’s immoral should be illegal.”

So if you’re dodging taxes, cutting hair without a license, or smoking pot, the government better not put me on a jury if you get arrested.

And if you have an expired registration sticker on your car, an unregistered gun, or a stockpile of normal light bulbs you plan on selling after the ban takes effect, you can safely confide in me.

Dan Mitchell - Guest Columnist

Dan is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
He also blogs at International Liberty.
Be sure to read his articles there.
We are grateful for his express permission to republish some of his fine commentaries on this site.


Sara said...

I won't be selling any lightbulbs, but I do thank you for your illuminating post!

Anonymous said...

Lets think about this, dodging taxes, cutting hair without a license,smoking pot!! dodging taxes/expired car sticker--cutting hair without a license/unregistered gun--smoking pot/stockpiling light bulbs. I think you could have come up with better examples.

Grant Davies said...

@ anonymous,
Perhaps Dan could have come up with better examples of laws he would strike down via the jury nullification method, but what examples do you suggest instead?

Perhaps your perspective is different than Dan's.