Irish Democracy or Fool's Paradise?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Glenn Reyolds notes, approvingly, a trend that we should actually be quite concerned about:

Meanwhile, on the marijuana front, the people of states like Colorado are engaging in an odd, 21st century variety of nullification. Unlike the 19th century John Calhoun version, state laws legalizing marijuana don't purport to neutralize the still-extant federal laws banning cannabis. But the state, and millions of Coloradans, are simply ignoring the federal law and, in essence, daring the feds to do something about it. [bold added]
Reynolds draws a debatable parallel between these actions and those of the millions who aren't signing up for ObamaCare -- and a solid parallel to jury nullification. I support both legalization of marijuana and a free market in medicine and medical insurance. However, I disagree that undermining rule of law is an acceptable or practical way to achieve either goal.

The fact that the feds can't or won't enforce every law all the time may sound good when the law is bad (and ought to be changed) and the general public supports (or appears to support) the freer side in a given question. But what if the general public somewhere is generally wrong, and individual rights are trampled? One need only think back to the mid-twentieth century American South to see numerous examples of what Reynolds lauds as "Irish Democracy" at work to keep fellow American citizens "in their place" under segregation. And what if the government decides to put its foot down on the wrong side of some issue? We aren't close to something like this yet, but perhaps someone ought to remind Mr. Reynolds of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. (While we aren't there yet, with seemingly every law enforcement agency boning up on military tactics and practically everything being illegal, there is no room for smugness.)

Thank goodness "Irish Democracy" failed in the 1960s. Regarding the lack of a heavy-handed government crackdown in Colorado, we shouldn't rest on our laurels and assume that politicians and bureaucrats, of all people, aren't looking for a way to aggrandize their authority. The Old South shows us that individual rights cannot be protected without a proper government; and China shows us that they can be completely ignored by a bad government.

Oh, and Reynolds seems also to have forgotten another relevant counterexample to his anarchic screed: The American Revolution, which was first won by pamphleteers, editorialists, and debaters in such places as coffeehouses and taverns. (When did they stop studying The Federalist Papers in law school, Professor Reynolds?)

Reynolds opens his column by echoing another author in giving "two cheers for anarchy". He is wrong to offer it even one cheer, as Harry Binswanger recently explained so clearly in a column titled "Sorry Libertarian Anarchists, Capitalism Requires Government" :
The genius of the American system is that it limited government, reining it in by a Constitution, with checks and balances and the provision that no law can be passed unless it is "necessary and proper" to the government's sole purpose: to protect individual rights-to protect them against their violation by physical force.
Individuals (and crowds) who feel like they do not have to answer to authorities can -- mistakenly or not -- violate individual rights. Governments that feel like they can do the same, because there is no principled, vocal opposition on the part of the governed can and will do the same.

With our national debate turning from "How can we get better protection for our individual rights from our government," to "How can we get away with breaking the law?", it would appear that we are eager to throw away the republic we were warned long ago was ours only if we could keep it.

-- CAV

P.S. I must make it clear that I agree with Ayn Rand that civil disobedience can be a valid way to challenge a government practice that violates individual rights.

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