‘Laws ought to be reasonable. If we’re obeying a law simply because it’s a law, it probably shouldn’t be a law.’
So tweeted Dan Hannan, Conservative MP for SE England, or somewhere equally indistinct, this morning. It’s actually almost word for word what the Prime Minister said in passing at the Despatch Box earlier this year. It was drivel then, and it’s drivel now. Saying such a thing would be a bad enough faux pas in private; tweeting it in a mass medium should give everyone pause to wonder just what goes on inside a legislator’s brain…..specifically in the area of allegedly ‘unforeseen consequences’.
The consequences of using the gist of that tweet as a rule of thumb in lawmaking should be obvious to an eight year old using just 10% of her left frontal lobe while watching X-Factor and playing playing a video game at the same time. One simple example will suffice. If my sister gets married to a penniless Chippendale layabout chancer, and after five months he decides to divorce her on the grounds of not liking the body lotion she uses, I know that under an entirely unreasonable set of stupid English divorce laws guaranteed only to increase the hourly rate income of lawyers, he will be entitled to a lot of assets, cash, flesh and blood.
My sister is obeying this law simply because it is a law daft enough to make even rabid feminists with double standards feel good about it, but will nevertheless render her impoverished on the basis of naive lust. It probably shouldn’t be a law, but it is. Now, suppose Wayne McChakrabati the murder entrepreneur offers to polish off Mr Chippergold-Digger at a cost of £10,000, thus saving her £690,000 she would otherwise owe on the basis of legalised gigolo blackmail…..what should my sibling and I do? Well, obviously the temptation to let Wayne wield his blunt instrument and bury our gold prospector under the Olympic Village will be fairly strong. So the law against premeditated murder is, in this case, being obeyed purely because it is a law. Ergo sum, it too probably shouldn’t be a law.
Now here we have two laws. One is entirely insane, and the other absolutely essential to a balanced and civilised society. Yet both can be disobeyed on the same Dan Hannan basis, they aren’t mutually exclusive, and whether one disobeyed them or otherwise would surely depend on the morality of the individual circumstances.
What Dan missed in his tweetbite – like almost all systemically obsessed politicians, barristers and civil servants do – is the key role of culture in making laws easy or difficult to obey. As G K Chesterton observed, “People crave new values because they can no longer live up to the old ones”. And as a Catholic lady told a mindless BBCNews interviewer on the subject of the latest Pope being a tough disciplinarian, “What makes you think being a Catholic is supposed to be easy?”
Twitter is a good discipline for those of us whose business is to alert others to news in a brief but comprehensible manner. But it is laughable as a means of arguing a philosophical point. In 140 characters, I could tweet ‘life is nasty brutish & short but we should aim for greatest happiness of greatest number, protection of vulnerable & equality before law’. This would fit into the format – and be saluted by 70% of voters. But contained within it are at least seven contradictions, depending on how one interprets life, happiness, vulnerable, protection, and law.
When Dan Hannan tweets this kind of stuff, he becomes a kind of human fortune cookie: this is fine as far as it goes, except that he uses it to justify complex economic and social issues, dish out Friedman quotes, and retweet hastily written ripostes by those who disagree with him – presumably in order to make fun of them. It is part of the rough and tumble of politics, but it isn’t honest.