Killing for Laws

People get killed when laws are enforced. How should this bear on our thinking about the laws’ legitimacy?

There is too much law. Considering that people in the business of keeping track of it cannot even tell how much of it there is, I don’t think this claim is reasonably open to dispute. But what laws should we get rid of? One seemingly attractive answer is: all those we are not willing to kill to enforce. It’s a great rhetorical weapon against laws: while we’re probably willing to resort to violence to stop violence, the boundaries of permissible law shrink very, very fast beyond that. But on further reflection I think this is not the right way to think about the issue.

Conor Friedersdorf quoted Stephen Carter’s statement of this view in a short piece in The Atlantic some years ago. (I haven’t tracked down the source of the quotation, though I haven’t looked very hard.) Professor Carter wrote:

[E]ven a breach of contract requires a judicial remedy; and if the breacher will not pay damages, the sheriff will sequester his house and goods; and if he resists the forced sale of his property, the sheriff might have to shoot him.

This is by no means an argument against having laws. It is an argument for a degree of humility as we choose which of the many things we may not like to make illegal. … The statute or regulation we like best carries the same risk that some violator will die at the hands of a law enforcement officer who will go too far. 

David Henderson picked this up in a recent post on EconLog, which is how I came across this particular statement of the “willingness to kill” test for the appropriateness of law. Professor Henderson suggests that you

[t]hink about all the laws and regulations you want. Then think about whether you want the government to be willing to kill people if those who disobey escalate their disobedience. … Then ask yourself if that affects your thinking about any of the laws that you previously said you wanted. Laws that make gasoline cans almost useless? Laws that say you can’t have more than a certain volume of water per minute coming out of your shower head? Laws against using marijuana? Laws against growing marijuana?

Like I said above, the suggestion seems to be that we shouldn’t have such laws ― not just as a matter of policy, but that it is immoral to have such laws and to expose people to the risk of death at the hands of law enforcement for disobeying them. And, to repeat, I’m not convinced.

Part of the reason why was given shortly after Mr. Friedersdorf’s piece appeared by Joe Carter at the Acton Institute’s blog. Mr. Carter referred to Frédéric Bastiat’s argument that resort to law, and to force in enforcing it, is legitimate when, but only when, an individual would be justified in using force to assert his or her natural rights (i.e. life, liberty, and property). The law is a collective substitute for individual self-defence or self-help. Now, just as an individual will sometimes be justified in using force, but not deadly force, in protecting his or her rights, so the law’s intervention may be justified only to a degree. But an individual does no wrong if the accidental consequences of an application of force in self-defence exceed what would have been a priori justified in the circumstances. (Mr. Carter gives the example of a person struggling with a thief who falls and breaks his neck. It would have been wrong to kill the thief intentionally, but the person is not blameworthy for the accident, even though it would not have occurred had they not defended their property.) And this too applies to the law: “Intentionality”, says Mr. Carter, “carries a lot of weight in such scenarios, whether the force is being applied by me or by the Sheriff”.

I think this is mostly right, but I would add a couple of qualifications or nuances. First, I’d sharpen Mr. Carter’s argument a bit. In the example he gives, it’s not only the case that the person who struggles to keep his or her property and in the process accidentally causes the thief to die is blameless. It’s also that the thief is actually wrong ― not just to commit the theft in the first place, but also, additionally and separately, wrong to persist in it and to struggle to hang on to unjustly acquired goods. Similarly, at least if assume that the enforcement of some laws is justified, and further that it is sometimes just (more on this presently), then at least in some subset of cases “escalating disobedience” is actually wrong. The thinkers and practitioners of civil disobedience ― Thoreau, King ― warned against it. So it’s not obvious that we should have special solicitude for the person who escalates disobedience ― at least in some (significant) number of cases.

This brings me to the second qualification to Mr. Carter’s argument. He concludes by writing that “the problem is not the violence” which sometimes accompanies the enforcement of the law, but “the injustice” of far too many laws. But we have been painfully reminded, over the last few years, that too often “the violence” is indeed a problem. Even if the underlying law is just, it can nonetheless be enforced unjustly, in ways that make it impossible to analogize the suffering caused in the process to an accident of no real moral significance, let alone something the law-breaker is to blame for. Far too often, law enforcement resorts to lies, intimidation, excessive actual or threatened violence and deprivation of rights. These problems can be and too often are compounded by prejudice, notably racial prejudice. Also far too often, moreover, law enforcement agencies and agents are unaccountable for these wrongs.

This is precisely why the “willingness to kill” argument, although not strictly valid, is intuitively appealing. At the very least, it draws our attention to the costs that our preference for and belief in the legitimacy of laws imposes on others (and sometimes, though rarely, on us). It also draws our attention to the fact that, our world being rather imperfect, these costs will be rather higher than ideal theory or even analogies to improbable accidents suggest, and unjustly so. And again the injustice is often compounded by the fact these costs weigh heavier on some groups of people than on others ― on the excluded, on the deviant, on the different. We can and should try to reform the system by which our laws are enforced to lessen the disparity, but we can and should also reform the legal system as a whole to reduce the cost of its enforcement for everyone, in recognition of the fact that injustice equally distributed does not cease being injustice.

Lastly, and despite the foregoing, I’ll add that, much as I love Bastiat, there is at least one kind of laws that are, I think, justified but do not fit the strictures of his definition: namely, laws that solve coordination problems. The classic example is the rule as to which side of the road people should drive on. I don’t think that such laws can easily be explained in terms of defence of natural rights; no one person has a right to dictate to another where to go. But such laws serve to make it easier for everyone to enjoy their freedom around other human beings and increase opportunities for peaceful collaboration. They are legitimate if any laws ever are, and even anarchists would want to devise (non-state) mechanisms for enforcing ― coercively if need be ― equivalent rules. It would of course be quite wrong to punish driving on the wrong side of the road by death, and we wouldn’t want anyone to to be killed for breaking this rule, even though it is very useful and not very onerous. But that doesn’t mean that there ought to be no rule about what said of the road to drive on, even if in some small proportion of cases rule-breakers who escalate their disobedience ― say by trying to drive away at high speed when the police attempt to stop them ― will end up dead.

With these qualifications, I think that the “willingness to kill” argument doesn’t quite work, but it draws our attention to some real issues. The concerns that make it appealing to some people are not decisive for or against a particular law, or even for or against a particular theory of legitimacy. But they should at least weigh on us when thinking both about individual laws and about theories of legitimacy, and make us prefer there to be less law rather than more, other things being equal.