Should Laws Be Obeyed?
Walter E. Williams, June 30, 1997

Should we obey laws? It all depends; some laws aren't worthy of obedience. "There you go again, Williams;" you say, "what kind of society would there be if people decided which laws they'd obey or disobey?" That might be a problem but let's look at it. During several visits to South Africa, during its apartheid era, one of my many remarkable discoveries was the widespread disobedience and contravention of its apartheid laws. Whites rented to blacks in open violation of the Groups Areas Act. Whites hired blacks in defiance of job reservation laws that set aside certain jobs for whites. Would you have insisted that whites obey apartheid law?

In Nazi Germany, it was illegal to conceal Jews or assist them in escape. Some Germans violated the law; would you have prosecuted them? In our country, the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) forbad and set penalties for anyone aiding, abetting, concealing a runaway slave or interfering with his capture. Once again, how many Americans think that those assisting runaway slaves should have been prosecuted? For decent people, laws shouldn't be blindly obeyed. They should ask not whether the law has majority support, not even whether it's constitutional (apartheid laws were part of South Africa's constitution), instead they should ask whether the law is moral.

Morality can be a contentious issue but there are some broad guides for deciding what laws and government actions have moral sanction. Lysander S. Spooner, one of America's great 19th century thinkers put it this way: no person or group of persons can "authorize government to destroy or take away from men their natural rights; for natural rights are inalienable, and can no more be surrendered to government - which is but an association of individuals - than to a single individual." Frederic Bastiat's, a French economist-philosopher, test for immoral government acts is: "See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime."

By these criteria, most acts of Congress do not have moral sanction, which is not to say Congress doesn't possess the brute force to command obedience. Most of what's enacted by Congress, consists of various ways of taking from one American to give to another. That's a criminal act - theft - if done by a private person. The moral principle undergirding our Declaration of Independence is natural law. The essence of natural law (those "unalienable rights") is that each person owns himself. Accepting that principle, what's moral and immoral is simplified. Murder, rape, theft, done privately or collectively, is immoral; it violates self-ownership rights. By the same token, seemingly innocent acts like government forcing people to protect themselves is immoral. Take the minor examples of speed limits and seatbelt laws. Driving at inappropriate speeds places others at risk. Not wearing a seatbelt places a driver at risk. We have rights to take risks with our own lives but not that of others; therefore, speed laws have moral sanction, whereas seatbelt laws don't.

Slowly but surely, liberty-minded Americans are increasingly faced with the dilemma of either obeying their moral consciences or obeying the law. It's a hard decision because doing what's moral and exercising one's natural rights can lead to fines, loss of property, imprisonment and possibly death at the hands of the agents of Congress. But most of my heroes are those men brave enough to risk all and opt for the more moral. We'll be celebrating some of these men July 4th. But unfortunately Americans will give our Founder's values and sacrifices lip service not commitment.

Walter E. Williams

June 30, 1997
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