A law that’s impossible to obey isn’t a law. A law that’s impossible to disobey isn’t a law. A law that’s impossible to enforce isn’t a law. And a law that isn’t enforced isn’t a law. The most it can be is entreaty. And very often it’s not even that.
What shall we say, then, of speed limits? Of the tens of thousands of cars on this stretch of highway, most will be speeding, but only two or three will be ticketed. On the other hand, the law against homicide isn’t just a “Please don’t!” Either you’re pregnant or you’re not. But laws aren’t like pregnancy. Illegal behavior can only be more or less illegal. Laws don’t come in zeros and ones.
Neither, then, does what we call the rule of law. In Canada the rule of law applies pretty rigorously to homicide, less so to bicycle theft, hardly at all to speeding, and not at all to polygamy.
Moreover, this is pretty much the way we like it. Most of us want to be able to speed. We’d all prefer not to have our bike stolen, but not if the cost of the requisite enforcement would be greater than that of replacing it.
Security of the person, on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother’ matter. Without it our lives would indeed be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Nasty, brutish, and short is precisely what life is in times of war. So we do our utmost to get ourselves out of it and enter instead into civil society, where our lives are orders of magnitude less solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
But note this “orders of magnitude”. If, for some people, life in a state of civil society is not orders of magnitude less solitary and poor, and if, for those people, life in a state of civil society is especially not orders of magnitude less nasty, brutish, and short, then for them for all intents and purposes civil society just is a state of war. In such a state, says Hobbes, there is no “mine nor thine distinct”. What’s mine is “whatever I can get, and only for so long as I can keep it.”
And that includes the television set I just took from the local Target store.
Now note this “for some people”. Most people in America pay for what they take from the Target store because for them the police are there to provide them security of the person. But there are some people in America for whom the police are as likely to kill them as protect them. When the police do this, they put themselves at war with these people. And in so doing, they increase the likelihood that their own lives will be “nasty, brutish, and short”.
Of course strictly speaking to say “the police are as likely to kill them as protect them” is nonsense. But people go to war – and rightly so – when they feel more threatened than protected. It’s easy for you and I to say these people are just awfulizing. That the media hype notwithstanding, the actual number of blue-on-black killings just doesn’t warrant the anger and fear we’re seeing all across America in the wake of the George Floyd murder. But this is an egregious misunderstanding of how a single flouting of the law can utterly destroy it. Just as one decanal violation of academic freedom can have a chilling effect lasting decades, so the murder of George Floyd has already rendered law enforcement impossible in many city centers in America for days.
Do I suspect anything of note will emerge from this latest courtship with anarchy? I do not. Yes, #Black Lives Matter, but only for a few days. Then it’ll be back to the latest Presidential idiocy. My point, however, is simply this. Black Americans buy guns too.