The Scofflaw Principle

On the occasion of the second anniversary of Internet Scofflaw, it seems like a good time to explain the name of the blog. The blog is named in honor of the Scofflaw Principle.

Simply put, the Scofflaw Principle says that adult humans are free, and that no one but our creator has the rightful authority to impose rules on us without our consent. Consequently, we are under no moral obligation to obey rules to which we have not consented. The reason we do not murder, cheat, or steal is not because civil authorities have made such acts illegal, but because they violate the moral code given us by our creator.

However, while the civil authorities may have no rightful authority to burden us with rules and regulations, they do have the power to do so. Therefore, while we have no moral obligation to obey their rules, we may find it expedient to do so. Such decisions are made on the basis of our own evaluation of costs and benefits.

I always pay my taxes, even though they go well beyond what the government has any right to demand of me, because if I refuse to do so, it is likely that I will be caught and the penalty is high. On the other hand, I almost never obey Pittsburgh’s ubiquitous no-turn-on-red signs, because I am unlikely to be caught and the penalty is slight.

The Scofflaw Principle clarifies our relationship with the civil authorities. The government is no different from anyone else that seeks to control our actions through coercion. When no moral imperative is at issue, we comply or not based solely on our own assessment of the risks. Some suggest that we have a duty to disobey laws that are improperly constituted. But the Scofflaw Principle says that whether the law is “proper” is beside the point. In the absence of a moral imperative, what matters is whether the government has the power to punish us for breaking it.

There are those who claim that we are not actually required under the law to fulfill various obligations (such as paying taxes). The legal theories underlying such claims are extremely far-fetched, but that’s beside the point. Regardless of what the law “really” says, the fact remains there is no possibility of prevailing in court with such a theory. As a practical matter, the law is whatever the courts say. Expecting courts to do the “right” thing merely sets us up for disappointment.

This is not to say that the rule of law is not important. Our lives are inestimably better when the civil authorities are not capricious, and the rule of law is (or used to be) the most important factor limiting their caprice. The same goes for other principles of good government such as democracy, checks and balances, and separation of powers. None of these principles give the government the moral prerogative to command us, but they do serve to limit governmental caprice.

Finally, a caution. The Scofflaw Principle cuts both ways: the whims of the civil authorities carry no moral authority in either direction. While we need not heed their demands, neither may we accept their warrant. Just because government sanctions an action does not make it moral. We cannot rely on government to tell us what is right any more than what is wrong. We must make moral decisions for ourselves.

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2 Responses to The Scofflaw Principle

  1. chrisamaphone says:

    The entanglement of this principle with religion is confusing to me. I get it if the idea of “morals given by Creator” is generalized to “morals i as an individual have chosen to adopt.” But why specifically is a Creator more trustworthy than a Government? Because it is super-human? Why doesn’t this idea take away individual initiative in the same coercive way?

    (Intended curiously, not accusatorily. I can refrain from commenting if you prefer, but I find the philosophy interesting.)

  2. K. Crary says:

    That’s a good question. As far as the political philosophy goes, I suppose you could take your own moral code as the starting point; what follows doesn’t depend very much on the origin of your moral code. But since the essence of the Scofflaw Principle is that we must decide as individuals what is right and wrong, it’s very important that your moral code be sound. That subject I don’t think is possible (or at least fruitful) to discuss in the abstract. My belief is informed by my assessment of the natures of God and man, given by the Bible and confirmed by observation of the world around us. I believe that God is trustworthy and man is not. Certainly if I believed in some sort of Hellenic, capricious creator, I would be very reluctant to defend his prerogative to dictate rules to us.

    An interesting thing about God as I understand him is that while he has the right to coerce us, and sometimes does, he generally chooses not to. Generally, he operates in a fashion that one might call libertarian. He issues his law, both through direct revelation and by creating our consciences, and then gives us free will to make decisions for ourselves. He could have made us automatons with no choice but to follow his will, but instead he lets us choose and deal with the consequences. C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce has greatly informed my thinking on this subject.

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