Giant scandals and massive breaches of the law seem commonplace. What is commonplace as well, though, is our response to these wrongs. Something must be done to address a breach of the law–but are our responses making a difference?
Whenever Target’s data center is breached, Enron ignores half of business ethics, companies try to hide money that should be taxed, presidents abuse authority, people steal information, and we kill each other, our response is the same: make new laws to stop such activity. Undoubtedly in an effort to thwart future law-breaking, we propose new laws to try to combat the new ways we have found around them. While it is an admirable premise, it is a completely unsound response to the problem.
Laws do not change. We all want the same things—freedom and justice. Every law that has been written, regardless of how well it succeeded in trying to do so, has attempted to increase freedom and/or justice. Sometimes, we invent ridiculous ways of trying to promote justice or completely forget what ‘freedom’ means, but every law is designed to give us these two things.
When a law that is designed to give us justice is broken by someone, we often think to ourselves, ‘Hmm. That law must not have given us justice. Let’s rid ourselves of it in favor of a different one.’ G.K. Chesterton warned us to always pause long enough before removing a fence to understand why it was erected in the first place. While there are laws that are poorly constructed (at best), we too frequently elect to completely change the dynamic of a law because someone breaks it, as if we are somehow able to compose infallible laws, or, at least, laws that only a handful of people could possibly break.
We forget that we are the ones writing the laws. In fact, the way we craft our laws comes from our own understanding of our depravity. Why would we legislate against assault weapon use unless we know we are prone to abusing them? There is nothing inherently wrong with owning an assault rifle. A big gun that sits there will not harm anyone. It requires a person and ammunition to make it dangerous, and ammunition comes in forms other than bullets. We make laws like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act because we know that we are greedy and we love to find creative ways around the law that we rationalize as okay and justify as being technically legal even we know that what happened was wrong, even if the law did not explicitly say so.
The law of the United States is not the highest authority in the land. Do you disagree? What do you think of recent legislation about corporate taxation? Homosexuality and its discrimination? Voting laws? Healthcare? No one agrees with every law the U.S. has churned out, nor should they. There is a guiding principle inside every single one of us that guides us in what we do and how we do it. Even if we were born into an atmosphere of terrible wrong or total anarchy (the two frequently go hand-in-hand), we know when things are not as they should be. We may not always have the best ideas of how to change, but especially as Americans, we are highly skilled in spotting things we know to be wrong.
Someone wise once said, “…an individual born into troubled times has the capacity, and even the duty, to behave in a manner that promotes unity, however difficult it may be” because of our deep knowledge of right and wrong. We have the luxury of living in a land that is mostly open to hearing from its citizens when they think there is a wrong being perpetuated or allowed to continue, but the majority of the world cannot say the same.
Our response does not fit the infraction. Breaches of the law do not indicate a problem with the law. They indicate a problem with the individual breaking the law. This would be far easier to administrate if those breaking the law were unknown to us. But lawbreakers are everywhere—businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters—ourselves and those around us. We break the law. We lie, steal, cheat, ‘bend the rules’, maybe ‘fail’ to report some income on our taxes, speed on our way to work, download music for free from our neighbor, and we do many of these things unblinkingly. We do not become truthful, upright citizens by changing the law. Changing the law does not stop us from doing that which we detest. It merely blinds us to its prevalence.
Our response, therefore, should not be to change the law, but to seek to enforce the law. We can write laws until our hands fall off, but if we do not make a concerted effort to enforce them, we remove the teeth of law. Instead of laws that bear consequences to those who would break them, we merely produce thousands of lions without claws, teeth, tails, or whiskers. They are gumless, blind, unstable, uncoordinated, easy to manipulate, and terrible hunters.