The Need for Law

Societies and civilizations cannot exist without one basic element, and that element is trust. What is too often overlooked, however, is that, the greater the complexity and technological level of a society, the greater the need for trust.

If you grow or hunt your own food, you don’t need to worry about others tampering or degrading your food to make a few extra coins. You may be poisoned by your own failings or carelessness, or you may be a terrible farmer or hunter, but you don’t have to trust someone else.

Throughout history, there have been those who abused trust, those who sold spoiled food, debased coins, misrepresented goods, and the like. And that’s why laws against such acts have been part of cultures from early on.

Such laws become more important as technology advances. If a potter covers a flaw in a pot with glaze, or uses substandard clay, and the pot later breaks, the damage is limited to the cost to the buyer and whatever food is lost or spoiled. If a ceramics factory uses substandard clay in making a batch of electronic power insulators, the damage is far greater and far more wide-ranging.

The same is also true with regard to speech. Falsehoods used to be limited to a given community and communities were small enough that people generally knew who to trust and whom not to – based largely on the observations of actions. It wasn’t perfect, but spreading “big lies” was difficult. That’s not to say it didn’t happen. The Egyptian records involving interactions between Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittites read quite differently from the Hittite records.

The problem today is technology. Technology is neither good nor evil; it’s simply a system of knowledge and technology that multiplies the effect of everything. The associated problem is human nature. Humans are hard-wired to react more to what we perceive as dangerous. So we react more strongly to what is presented as evil or dangerous – even when we should know better. And the combination of technology and that aspect of human nature makes it difficult to combat big lies that prey on our fears.

Yet, human nature being what it is, there are always those who, for personal gain or misguided ideals, abuse trust. When a society refuses or is unable to deal with and prevent such abuses more and more people take matters into their own hands. The result is usually either anarchy and growing lawlessness or a societal reaction that results in a restrictive and authoritarian government.

5 thoughts on “The Need for Law”

  1. Censored Far Too Often says:

    There is always someone somewhere arguing curtailing speech would be for the best. To do so is to commit a fundamental error

    Freedom of speech requires people to use critical thinking, but lack of freedom of speech doesn’t take that burden away. Indeed, it only makes things worse: it prevents people who would have made the effort to think critically from having the information they need to do so.

    And that is only to the benefit to those in power who will regulate speech for their benefit. An uninformed docile public is a lot easier to control than an informed angry public.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Even if increasing complexity affords increasing opportunity for abuse, surely balance requires considering that the open-ended expansion of law OR censorship can quickly become more destructive than any harm it purports to prevent.

    At some point, people have to recognize that there is no such thing as a sheltered life, unless they live on an island with just their own small family. They’ll have to participate in self-defense at least in terms of some degree of caveat emptor and of analyzing information critically, rather than taking for granted those they agree with much more than those they don’t. They SHOULD do that even if government can stop much of the worst, because government ONLY remains trustworthy as long as its trustworthiness is NOT taken for granted; and government is not all that competent even at its best; and because if government tried to stop every harm or injustice, it would be inflicting a far greater one, the death of both liberty and independent thought.

    Nobody but anarchists and the most ideological of libertarians is arguing for NO law; but that doesn’t mean one opposite extreme is better than the other.

  3. Tom says:

    What happens with freedom of speech in a society with a significant misinformed angry public? It seems that such a condition of society may be preferred by some critical thinkers but I have not seen any essays to support such a position.

    Autocrats would certainly prefer a docile public rather than an angry public. Autocrats can and do turn out their police and after a short interval get their docile public back again. Non-autocratic national leaders would have to put up with misinformed angry public groups who may choose to demonstrate their idea of responsible freedom of speech and critical thinking in angry physical ways rather than continued speech and debate. Such leaders usually do not have any effective practical ways to deal with these situations except with counter-propaganda because the facts are already out there and the critical thinking opportunity has not been accepted. Trust once lost is almost never regained as President Biden is finding out with regards to US international affairs. Curtailing rather than pointing out the misinformation is probably easier and quicker but it does raise the specter of censorship. Until either we, as members of the public, show some self-control so that we can be trusted, or our less autocratic leaders find a tool to curtail, delete, or in some effective way label misinformation; we are stuck with the quick fixes.

    As with everything in the universe trust works both ways: if the sovereign individual is trustworthy then the group or nation including those responsible for directing national affairs can be trusted – and vice versa with distrust. We stop breaking the laws the law-enforcers have nothing to do and the law-makers have no reason to create yet more amendments in place of more logical law replacements. We should avoid the Casius amongst us and not believe … “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The fault being neither in the stars nor the misinformation; it is indeed in ourselves. We are the example for ourselves to follow for trust and alternatively for distrust.

  4. H. Nieuwenhuijzen says:

    From a practical, rather than an ideological standpoint, I tend to think it’s probably good if some limits are placed on free speech.
    Even the US has some “truth in advertising” and “no crying fire in a crowded theater” sorts of laws, and I think those are worth having.
    I would like it if “truth in advertising” could be expanded to political campaigning – the habit of politicians and political action campaigns to lie outrageously does not make for an intelligent discourse or informed choices by the misled voters.

    During the pandemic we have all seen people fall prey to online misinformation, often started by those with someting to gain, and then spread by their misled dupes. Putting the brakes on the spread of such, occasionally deadly, misinformation would be much better than to just let it run wild, actively pushed by algorithms for commercial gain.
    That is not a plea for wholesale censorship, but it is a plea for allocating consequences to spreading harmful misinformation. The consequences can be adjusted for intent and effect; that’s what the judicial system is for, the weighing of misdeeds and their consequences, and allocating fines or jailtime accordingly.
    So Andrew Wakefield, the struck-off doctor who deliberately falsified results which directly made parents reject the measles vaccine (which has caused measurable harm to children) and consequently started the anti-vax movement (which has caused so much death and suffering), in order to make monetary profit*, should get jailtime; but a duped person who reposts a few articles on Facebook should get a warning and get those posts downgraded and linked to the debunking sites.
    * see this book

  5. Morpheus99 says:

    To quote Endless Twilight, “A standardized communications network allows a richer cultural life, but reinforces the possibility of social control by the few.” Prescient words from Mr. Modesitt from 1988, before the Internet was yet a thing.
    But, are individuals willing to stake their lives on overcoming that control?

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