The Tyranny of Legislation

In a society based upon the principles of individual liberty, there is a need for only seven laws:

  1. One may not take another’s life unless one’s life or property is in imminent danger.
  2. One may not physically assault another individual unless one’s life or property is in imminent danger.
  3. No one has a right to take, use, or damage another’s property without the voluntary consent of the owner of such property.
  4. Commerce must be conducted honestly. All products and services must be represented accurately and function as described and intended.
  5. All parties who voluntarily enter into an agreement or contract are obligated to fulfill the terms of said agreement or contract.
  6. All social and economic interactions must be undertaken on a voluntary basis. No one must be coerced to engage in any social or economic activity.
  7. An individual’s personal rights must always be respected and protected. No personal, moral, societal, or other preferences supersede the rights of personal liberty.

Laws may be legitimately passed to clarify each of these seven laws. For example, laws or regulations preventing one from causing pollution may be legitimate, since pollution emanating from one individual or concern may damage the property of another. Laws that ensure commerce is conducted honestly may be legitimate, provided that such laws don’t hinder commerce or provide an advantage or penalize any party.

Any type of law not addressed by the above seven laws is probably illegitimate in a free society. These include laws in which one’s personal morality, preferences, or ideals are coercively imposed upon another. Examples of these types of illegitimate laws include laws that regulate individual behaviors that do not infringe upon the liberties of others. Sexual practices, religious preferences, economic decisions, personal moral beliefs, and lifestyle choices are areas that should not be subject to coercive legislation.

Laws should also not be passed to address the economic or social preferences of any group of individuals, regardless of how noble or useful such preferences appear. Not only do attempts to establish a “nanny state” paternalistic society inevitably fail, they also are an affront to the concept of personal liberty. One should have the freedom to make one’s own decisions, even if those decisions are bad. When government tries to act as the arbiter of “good decisions,” or attempts to protect people from the consequences of their decisions, that government creates a society of mediocrity. In such a society, the population has no personal incentive to make good decisions, since government protects them from their own failures. Conversely, and more importantly, such a society also discourages risk taking. Those who have accomplished the most throughout history have usually been those who were willing to assume the largest risk and to deviate from conventional thinking. A paternalistic nanny state merely reinforces and rewards the status quo. It actively discourages new thinking and the new ideas that fuel economic and social progress.

Attempts to create social or economic engineering solutions through the coercive power of government, besides infringing upon personal liberty, inevitably lead to unintended consequences. These so-called solutions usually involve providing an advantage or reward to a certain group, while denying the same advantages or rewards to other groups. This means that government, instead of protecting individual liberty and initiative, actively interferes with the organic growth of the economy or society by imposing its preferences for behavior or outcomes. For example, providing tax incentives to specific industries artificially inflates the value of these industries, while ignoring or penalizing industries that may actually produce more societal or economic good if left to compete in a free marketplace. This also creates an atmosphere that invites governmental corruption, as any special interest will lobby, petition, or bribe the government for special favors. When a favor is granted to any specific interest, other interests are, by definition, penalized by not being allowed to compete on the same level. Rather than competing on merit, by the strength of their own products or services and their acceptance in a free marketplace, organizations are forced, in this corrupt environment, to compete upon the basis of the clout they wield in government. There is no economic or societal advantage in using clout, rather than merit, to determine the success or failure of any undertaking.

The same argument about unintended consequences holds true to legislation that attempts to regulate personal behavior. The attempt to ban the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages failed miserably. People routinely ignored the law (leading to a breakdown in respect for government) and illegal organization sprung up and thrived in order to satisfy the demand for the now-illegal beverages. A similar situation exists in the consumption of recreational drugs. Legislation outlawing the consumption of recreational substances and the so-called “War on Drugs” did little to stifle demand for these substances. Instead, these laws caused the emergence of illegal organizations and cartels to supply the inherent demand for these substances. Since this commerce is illegal, there are no contractual controls to govern the behavior of these organizations or ways to ensure that such commerce is conducted honestly. It should come as no surprise that these illegal organizations engage in violent behavior, since their basic trade is illegal to begin with.

In order to combat the violence caused by organizations that have sprung up in response to such ill conceived laws, public law enforcement has had to become more militaristic in order to fight the violence, and more and more laws that restrict basic civil rights and liberties have been passed in order to address the problems caused by this illegal trade. For example, in order to prevent cash transactions and money laundering by drug cartels, Americans can no longer conduct any cash commerce in excess of $10,000 without notifying Federal authorities. Even if the authorities are notified, civil forfeiture laws allow government authorities to seize property if they claim to suspect such money or property was obtained through illicit drug sales. There is no need for due process before seizing a person’s property – suspicion is enough. It is up to the owner of the property to prove that their property was obtained through legitimate means. The basic concept of innocence until proven guilty, which is a cornerstone of a free society, is abandoned in order to maintain the façade of legislation initially enacted to create a socially engineered solution to a perceived problem.

There is no denying that addiction can be a tragic and debilitating experience. However, the choice to consume an addictive substance rests solely with the individual choosing to indulge in these substances. He or she should bear the brunt of those decisions, not society as a whole. The entire population should not have their behavior constrained, or liberties restricted, because a small proportion of the population fails to make good decisions. Attempts to use the coercive power of government to regulate specific behaviors not only fails to ensure good decisions by the targeted population, such legislation usually has significant negative effects on the rest of the populace.

Laws that exceed the seven listed above are fundamentally an attempt by a group of people to impose, through threat of government-enforced force or forfeiture, their will upon others. No matter how well-intentioned, laws that impose the will of one group upon another group are an assault on personal freedom. The United States was not founded upon the principle of the mediocrity of collectivism. It was founded upon the principles of individual liberty and personal initiative. We must be very vigilant when leaders or candidates propose “solutions” that exceed the scope of these seven basic laws. Although they may craft a compelling argument in favor of their solutions, these “solutions” are merely the leader or candidate’s attempt to impose his or her will on the populace. There is a term for the form of government that coercively imposes its own preferences on the population, even if the leaders are “freely” elected by the populace. That term is “dictatorship.”