In the early 1960s, there was an interesting experiment on obedience to authority that measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. It was known as the Milgram experiment, and was conducted in concert with the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann to determine whether his defense, and that of many of his German compatriots, could be considered legitimate; that they were all just following orders.
In the experiment, participants were asked to administer progressively stronger electric shocks to a “learner” in a separate room at the behest of an authority figure when the learner answered questions incorrectly. Even after the learner was screaming in pain, complaining of a heart condition, and begging for the experiment to stop, participants were urged to complete the experiment by the authority figure. The learner was an actor and there were no real electric shocks, but the participant was unaware of this.
The conclusions of the experiment were astounding. Milgram wrote, ” The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study. Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the participants’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Fast forward to today. A seemingly ordinary man wakes in the morning, puts on a badge, and arms himself as if headed for war. He then forcibly enters another man’s home, shoots the family dog, destroys property, injures or kills the inhabitants, traumatizes children, and then goes home to his own family for a hot supper and a good night’s sleep.
Or how about the government bureaucrat who threatens to take away a man’s livelihood and his ability to provide for his family because that person did not fill out some binder full of useless paperwork, obtain the proper license, or pay the proper fees. Perhaps he compels a business owner to provide a service to another citizen that is contrary to that business owner’s religious beliefs.
What of the tax man who exacts his pound of flesh every year and reserves the right to hang you upside-down and shake the change from your pockets if he does not believe you have paid your “fair share?” Worse yet, what if he does it depending on your political persuasion?
How are these seemingly normal people able to compel fellow citizens to act contrary to their religious beliefs, commit acts of aggravated assault, destroy private property, and extort money from their fellow Americans and not feel the slightest remorse for their actions? Force of law.
Why do these laws, these simple words on paper, hold such sway? By putting on that badge or donning that halo of misbegotten righteousness, an ordinary person is transformed from fellow citizen into an overseer with a false sense of superiority. After all, they represent “government” and are acting on behalf of it. And since government is the “will of the people,” that person believes they have the authority to do whatever they just did, no matter how heinous, in its name. They also have the ability to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for the negative ramifications thereof.
And there’s the rub. Authority of government stems from legislation and that legislation itself allows for this exemption from morality. It essentially institutionalizes the steamrolling of the individual by the collective. The law becomes a validation of force, providing the enforcer with the veneer of legitimacy to do any and all manner of violence and coercion in its name; in essence, to do bad things that good people wouldn’t normally do. And it matters not what the law is, only that it is the law. After all, they are just doing their jobs; they are just following orders.
So what does it mean? What lesson should we glean from these insights? First off, the law should be a shield, not a sword. Our Founders designed a Constitution (the shortest in use today) that’s elegant simplicity was the root of its genius. The rules therein are few and basic and set the conditions for a government that can protect its citizens from force and fraud and to enforce contracts—and that’s pretty much it. The Founders understood the nature of man (that he lusts for power and will blindly pledge fealty to authority to get a bit for himself) and they also understood the nature of power (that it corrupts absolutely). Additionally, history has shown that combining these two natural phenomena had led to more bloodshed than any other cause and would continue to do so if left unchecked.
Is it becoming clear now why the Constitution was designed to make it very difficult to enshrine things into law? President Calvin Coolidge said it was better to kill bad bills than to pass good ones, and the above is exactly why. Because the more laws, the less justice.
Unfortunately, our Constitution has gradually been lost to the people, and as legal scholar Michael Stokes Paulsen states, “rendered unintelligible by the high priests (to be read as lawyers and judges) using language that corrupts the plain-spoken words of a document intended to be accessible to all, and to belong to all, by adding a veneer of pseudo-sophisticated legalese. This serves to distance the people from their Constitution by rendering it inaccessible to common understanding. Thus corrupted, the words of the Constitution, our fundamental charter of rights and of government, have become the exclusive province of an elite cabal of high priests.”
Most laws today criminalize many actions that don’t involve any harm to other people or property, but rather are offenses against “the state.” As the statutes pile up, it becomes harder to keep track of what exactly is illegal and to ensure those enforcing this byzantine legal code are doing it properly. This leads to arbitrary enforcement, abuse of power, alienation of the governed, contempt for, and finally, violence toward, the state.
Laws should be few and well thought out, and our system is designed for just that purpose. This means we should be wary of those politicians clamoring to “get something done.” Greet with skepticism Congressmen who insist they must hurry up and pass a bill so they can know what’s in it. Push back against Senators who change the rules because Republicans are being obstructionist and standing in the way of progress. And certainly, call out a President that states that if Congress won’t act, he will. Because what begins as government doing things FOR you becomes government doing things TO you.