Here I’ll discuss some points on political theory, but in fairly abstract form. Unlike most of my hit pieces here, no ideologies will be harmed.
First of all, imagine that you’re all alone on a lush but uninhabited island. You could do anything you want, and nobody would mind. In this tropical paradise, nobody cares what you do. Furthermore, nobody can offend you, injure you, or violate your rights. It’s impossible for you to do these things to anyone either. Nobody else is there!
If you’re a hermit and skilled enough to live off the land, you’ll seldom see anyone else unless you choose to walk to town. Except for the rare occasions when you do meet someone, then once again, you can do anything you want. Other than that, there’s nobody who might potentially do anything bad to you, or even offend you. Technically, the law of the land applies, but nobody cares. However, on the rare occasions when you are around others, then you’ll have to abide by certain minimum standards of behavior, like wearing clothes.
There’s not too much unclaimed territory left where you can do that, or property where others won’t mind you hanging out indefinitely, but you get the picture. Another important consideration is that humans are social creatures. Few of us actually want to be hermits. For the rest of us, constant solitude would drive us a bit crackers. However, people aren’t perfect. We have to moderate our conduct to get along with others. I’ll get into all that later on.
The evolution of societies
Now let’s consider mankind in the state of nature. It’s a little different from what Rousseau envisioned, dreaming it all up from pure theory. We don’t have a time machine to see exactly how it rolled in the early Holocene period. However, we do have well-documented records of tribal societies from the Age of Exploration. Even now, in a few remote areas, there are still some tribes that have had hardly any contact with the outside world.
Ten thousand years ago, everyone was living in relatively small tribes. They shared some characteristics with small towns. Everyone knew each other and was familiar with their personality quirks. The tribes did have social hierarchies, but very simple ones. Everyone knew where they fit. Social mobility was not achieved by making lots of money as it is now (because there wasn’t any) but rather by gaining reputation and not doing anything to lose face. The chief was probably the strongest hunter. If there was an irreconcilable leadership dispute, the challenger could take his followers and branch off to form another tribe. The shaman was whoever could talk to spirits, gain useful information from them, and heal the sick, or at least do a pretty good acting job of all that. Law was a fairly simple matter, things like “do what the chief says”, “don’t injure your tribesmen”, “don’t run from battle”, and so forth. When early mankind figured out where babies come from – actually a pretty significant development in society – then “don’t fool around on your spouse” was added to the list.
When tribes got larger – numbering thousands or tens of thousands – things got a little more complicated. The barbarian tribes in Europe’s Dark Ages are a pretty good example. Youths built up their reputation and deeds, and the most seasoned warriors got to be officers. This later evolved into the hereditary peerage system. Customary law was getting somewhat more complicated: “the penalty for a punch in the nose is X, the penalty for knocking out a tooth is 2X”, etc.
Now let’s go way back again, let’s say seven thousand years ago or so. Small towns were beginning to form. Being chief had become a hereditary position, probably not long after they figured out where babies come from. Whoever set up the place became the ruler of the new city-state, forming its first dynasty. New technologies came along. For example, someone figured out how to bake clay into bricks, and that you can build cool stuff by stacking them together. Eventually the cities got a little larger as other tribes drew in. They would’ve had some differences in dialect and in customs, at least at first. Past a certain growth in population, not everyone knew each other any longer. Misunderstandings and conflicts became more frequent. They had to develop customs for politeness and acting civilized. Those two terms are from the Greek and Latin word for “city” – polis and civitas.
Fast forward a little further to about five thousand years ago. The first nations were consolidating in Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt. Allied city-states united under a single king. With major cities developing, this needed more hierarchy and infrastructure. I’ll spare you a long monologue on the evolution of the legal system. Let’s just say that settling disputes became a little too much for just one man to handle, so this got delegated to judges. Legal codices got longer, and were recorded with that newfangled invention, writing. Hammurabi’s Code is one of the most famous.
In time, the legal codes got quite extensive indeed. For example, medieval Iceland’s law book was called the Grágás. (That means “Grey Goose”, for some reason.) It’s the size of three dictionaries. I’ll resist the temptation to monologue too much about their legal system, but they did get by with just a few regional chiefs. Disputes were pretty simple back then. Nobody had to figure out the intricacies of what you can and can’t do in the stock market, for example. One problem with such a minimalist government was that if you won a lawsuit, you’d have to organize your own Viking raid to collect on it. Other than that, modern libertarians would’ve loved it there, so long as they spoke Old Norse.
Fast forward to present times. Populations are exponentially far beyond what they once were, and climbing. A large fraction of the population lives in cities of millions, and people don’t always know their neighbors, much less everyone else in town. Customs may vary greatly, and dozens of languages are spoken in some of these cities. As for the legal system, even the IRS tax code alone would make the Icelandic Grágás seem like a leaflet. As for the government, that includes dozens of agencies. Unfortunately, it’s to some degree under the sway of powerful commercial interests, some including international business empires, as well as some very wealthy individuals.
Anyway, things sure got complicated over the last ten thousand years!
The sources of control
OK, so let’s go back to the first point. To get along with other people, there must be agreed-upon standards of behavior. That’s pretty important, especially if you have millions of fellow townspeople. These come from three sources.
- Control by social standards
- Control by law
The first one is pretty simple. Your id starts screaming like a spoiled brat, your superego yells at your id to shut up, and your ego makes the final call. Those who have good self-control and treat others with respect tend to have fewer conflicts with others. Nobody’s perfect, but when a righteous person has a conflict with someone else, it’s usually because the other person was being unreasonable or crossing boundaries. This is the most agreeable form of control – you made the choice.
As for the second, this includes agreed-upon social standards like customs, ethics, and morals. (The latter two words come from Greek and Latin roots meaning “customs”, though in English they take on different shades of meaning.) Some of this is cultural, and religion fills in another part. Control by social standards is less agreeable than self-control. You have to live by other people’s rules. Noncompliance will lead to various social penalties: odd looks, gossip, the perception that you’re a weirdo, or (at the utmost) shunning. Still, these are relatively minor compared to control by law, though it gets bad if it’s something that affects your income. More aggressive forms like shivaree, tarring and feathering, and running miscreants out of town on a rail have gone by the wayside. If people tried those things these days, then they’d be perceived as the bad guys.
When people don’t share the same set of customs, misunderstandings are more likely. People from the urban northeast may come across as pretty brusque to a Minnesotan, even when they don’t mean it. People trained to be excessively polite are at risk of getting walked over by pushy people (no matter where they originate). That’s a pretty minor example.
If your Southeast Asian neighbors barbecue a dog, that might be a little much for you. If they see you scratching your nose, they’ll think that’s disgusting. Misunderstandings between cultures are generally because one doesn’t live up to the standards of another. As for religion, minor differences don’t matter much these days. For that matter, atheists can get along in devout communities without feathers being ruffled all that often. However, there are limits to that. If a bunch of Muslims settle next to a Hasidic neighborhood, then feathers will be ruffled. Generally speaking, the more different people are in the same society, the less freedom is possible. In the beginning, I promised that no ideologies would be harmed, so I won’t go too far with that one.
The third item – control by law – has to step in sometimes. This is when people don’t control themselves, they refuse to conform to social standards, and a problem results which is serious enough to require intervention by one of the layers of the government. It’s always been around in one form or another. Anarchy is pretty silly, suitable only for failed states and fourteen year olds, and it’s been a train wreck on the rare occasions it happens in the real world.
Although it’s a necessity, control by law is the least agreeable form. At the minimum, you get handed a speeding ticket that might cost you a day’s wages. Getting sent to prison is worse than getting disfellowshipped from your church, unless you consider it the only source of salvation from an eternity in hell. (Incarceration is temporary, even for lifers.) The more enlightened countries such as ours do have several rights and procedural protections for the accused. However, if you’re innocent but a prosecutor has a case of tunnel vision – a frequent hazard of that occupation – then getting out of the judicial meat grinder is still no picnic.
Plato had much to say about the law. One analogy he made was that it’s a virtue to dress nicely, but it wouldn’t make sense to mandate it by law. Indeed, the legal system is a pretty blunt instrument. Unfortunately, the laws are getting more numerous and persnickety.
For one example, I got a nastygram from the city because I had trash barrels in front of the house. However, it explained that having trash barrels any place by the side of the house is OK, and it even included a helpful diagram. At least half of my neighbors got that note too. Is this something worth micromanaging? For some odd reason, my property values nearly have doubled in the last several years despite our wicked ways. If any of us had told the city to take a hike, we would’ve been fined and then slapped with a lien for nonpayment. For any scofflaws who refused to pay the dreaded trash-barrel-out-front fine, they’d probably get thrown out of their own homes after a sheriff’s sale.
A thousand years ago, Anglo-Saxons were swinging swords. These days, they’re bothered by trivialities like this. That’s progress, supposedly. That was one offhand example; there are entire websites to make fun of silly laws.
Finally, a few centuries ago, attorneys started out as people who were familiar with the law and skilled at rhetoric. Today, their billable rates are in the same ballpark as surgeons. They typically specialize in specific legal disciplines: contracts, wills and probate, criminal law, slip-n-fall suits, etc. Not even the most brilliant attorney is an expert in every facet of the law. Their days (often stretching into the night) involve searching through dusty tomes of case law to defeat word games by the opposing attorney, and to counterattack with word games of their own. If one of those prosecutors mistakenly thinks you’re the bad guy and stops looking for other suspects, then you’re definitely going to need a lawyer to find your way out of the maze. Simply put, their skills are needed for figuring out what the law actually says. This facet of modern civilization is more complicated than ever!
Anyway, here are a couple of other ancients who had some things to say:
The more laws, the less justice.
The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.
Hopefully some of this was food for thought.