How to recognize an unjust law.

Unjust lawThe initiation of violence is the very the essence of government. No one disputes this fact. It is practically the definition of the modern state.

“What essentially sets a nation-state apart,” declared candidate Barack Obama, is that it has a “monopoly on violence.”

Since the state is known for its use of violence to enforce its decrees, Catholics need to go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph 1930, to understand why governments use violence to compel obedience:

1930. Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. . . .

What are these human rights? The right to private property. CCC 2304. A worker’s right to spend his earnings however he chooses. Rerum Novarum 5. The principle purpose of the state is to protect these rights and the right to personal and collective security; that is, to promote the common good. CCC 1925.

The government that “flouts” the rights of people–an unjust government–can only obtain obedience to its laws by the use of violence.

Saint Thomas Aquinas explained that an unjust law is no law at all:

ThomasAquinas“As Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5) “that which is not just seems to be no law at all”: wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature, as is clear from what has been stated above (91, 2, ad 2). Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.” Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 95, Art. 2.

Since natural law is recognizable to most men, many succeed in conforming their conduct to much of it without the need for punishment. One way of measuring the “justness” of a law is to ask whether most people readily obey a law even without the fear of punishment. By this measure, laws against murder, theft and assault are just laws.

Contrast these laws–which are widely respected–with laws designed to control people who are not harming anyone (except perhaps themselves). These people may be unlicensed barbers, brewers, midwives or street vendors. Or they are guilty of questionable conduct: gamblers, smokers, drug users & sellers, drunks and adulterers. Most of these people would not kill you even if they could get away with it, but they freely commit these and other offenses, none of which harm anyone but themselves.

Some of these actions are widely considered to be immoral vices, while other conduct is prohibited for various political/regulatory reasons. People are more likely to commit such offenses when the law appears arbitrary, meddlesome and paternalistic; especially if the likelihood of being caught is low.

The one law that no one obeys voluntarily

There is one demand of government that almost no one (however virtuous they may be) would obey except under the threat of violence. That demand is the payment of taxes.

DonationImagine that the United States of America sends me an annual tax bill. It’s not really a bill. It’s just a notice telling me that my family’s share of the national budget is $7,325.00. The payment is purely voluntary, but I really ought to “do my part” and send in the money. Other than the social ostracism my failure might engender, there is no penalty for non-compliance.

Would anyone pay this bill? Perhaps we would, if: 1) we heartily approve of everything the government does; and 2) we think the government is so efficient that we are not motivated to look to competing services. Realistically, this is not going to happen. Those few people who claim they would pay such a “bill,” still want a proviso that everybody else would pay too. Of course, without the threat of violence, that is not going to happen either.

The benchmark of an unjust law is the degree to which the lawgiver must threaten or use violence to enforce obedience. A law which few will obey without the threat of force is–by this measure–an unjust law. Compulsory taxation is, therefore, unjust.

Libertarian Catholic

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