A Government of Laws, Not Personalities

by FJ Rocca8/14/15

John Adams’s oft quoted phrase “a government of laws and not of men” was once taken for granted in the US. I grew up in the 40s and 50s when school children in the US were taught that it was a blessing to live in a nation founded by wise men who realized that a government of laws was stable, but a government of human beings, of personalities, was not. George Washington, probably the most powerful personality of his day, was once offered the option of being a king or a president. He opted to be president and even limited his service to two terms. Washington, in his wisdom, recognized the principle embodied in Adams’s phrase.

A body of laws tends to remain stable, providing those chosen to enforce those laws, i.e., the elected and appointed government officials and bureaucrats, pledge scrupulous allegiance to uphold and preserve them. In fact, when sworn in, elected officials take such a pledge before assuming office. But the principles embodied in our founding documents are easily lost or transmuted when they take second place to a “leader” in whom vast power is invested to govern without paying scrupulous attention to the pledge he or she has taken. Despite having taken the pledge to uphold and protect the US Constitution and the laws derived from it, Barak Obama promised instead to fundamentally transform America. Therein is the danger of electing a personal leader instead of a public servant. In such situations, grand personality trumps the humble promise to keep the nation as it was conceived and instead to fashion laws and policies to suit his intentions. How many executive orders has Mr. Obama issued to circumvent the US Constitution and the laws derived from it? I’m sorry, but I’ve lost count.

To avoid this very danger, the wise founders of our nation gave us a body of laws to ensure our great freedom and of all our rights as American citizens. Christopher Hitchens, once an avowed socialist, once said that they were the greatest documents ever conceived by man. Now, that endorsement is significant for its wisdom. And he was right to say it. The practical fruits of the our system, the proof of its effectiveness and its value to civilization, have been two and a half centuries of freedom and wealth unprecedented in all of human history, not limited to those in political power, but spread among all people who possess energy and wit to pursue their own fortunes. But as Benjamin Franklin warned about keeping our republic, the Constitution and Bill of Rights can be lost to politicians with big, flashy personalities who make false promises. Therefore, as John Adams’s phrase tells us, we must have a government of laws and not of men.


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FJ Rocca

About FJ Rocca

FJ Rocca was born the day after Pearl Harbor in the same hometown as Johnny Appleseed. He is a trained classical musician, a published illustrator and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. His website is candiddiscourse.com.
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22 Responses to A Government of Laws, Not Personalities

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    A government of laws involves not only having the laws, but enforcing them honestly and fairly. Corruption eats away at the concept, and so does abuse of power. The end result is total corruption combined with rampant abuse of power — in other words, the reign of Barry Screwtape Obama, the Crimson King.

  2. NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

    A worthy and timely topic, FJ. The basic idea is that the citizen owes obedience to no man but only to the law. Of course it has to be fleshed out a bit – law as Americans (and to a great extent the British before us) have understood it is supposed to have certain characteristics such as lucidity (a citizen should be able to read the law and understand whether any particular action will violate that law) and objectivity. I would insist that any proposed law be scrutinized carefully to make sure its object and intent are squarely within the proper purposes of government and most especially does not manufacture a class of artificial “criminals” – the method through which tyranny achieves its goals (e.g. gun control, which criminalizes mere possession of a weapon and not its use to violate someone else’s rights).

    The best description I have ever read of the opposite condition, a government of men and not of laws, came from Saddam Hussein, believe it or not:

    Law is two lines above my signature.”

    Remind you of anybody?

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This necessity of lucidity is one good reason why these mega-laws should always be rejected. The time needed between finalization of the law and actually voting to approve it should be sufficient for anyone to read (and understand) the whole thing. This doesn’t force them to do so, but it allows the possibility. It’s also important to realize that unclear laws and a reliance on administrative law-writing (in the guise of “interpreting” vague laws) make a hash of the concept that “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

    • FJ Rocca says:

      I agree. Merely being “the law” does not make a thing beneficial to society. Law is for the purpose of order and not to ensure moral society. However, good laws must always have a moral and ethical foundation. The Nurenberg Laws were laws, too, but they were awful and unjust. Laws must also be comprehensible, just as you say.

      My late brother believed that lawyer-legislators contributed to the problem of tortuously circuitous laws. He firmly believed that we would be a lot better off if lawyers were prevented from becoming legislators. As judges are not supposed to make laws, but interpret and apply them in the justice system, lawyers are supposed to interpret and apply them, as well. It is dangerous to have the laws made by the same people who are charged with the responsibility to execute them. When lawyers make laws, they make them so that they are the ones who must interpret them. I believe they do this as a result of the affliction of their training. They can’t help making laws overly intricate and hopelessly complicated. Add to that the fact that, as a camel is said to be a horse designed by committee, our laws are often a result of too many cooks spoiling the broth. The greatest of our laws are also the simplest, our Founding Documents, largely drafted by two men, Jefferson and Madison.

      I tend to agree that laws ought to be made by those who must follow them, therefore, should be crafted from the firm belief that they must make common sense and be easily comprehensible. Butchers, dentists, barbers and engineers would probably make much better laws than Mitch McConnell.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, I think it would be a big improvement if laws were written to be readable by normal educated people. The obtuseness of the law is a big problem, as is the problem that Rush Limbaugh describes when he says “Words mean things.” But for those for whom power or their political ideology mean everything, there is no integrity and words can mean whatever they want them to mean. There is no social contract of the law under this way of being. It’s more of a lord/serf relationship. And I think that is a big reason the words are so obtuse. It’s the ruling-class mindset. Yes, part of this is the lawyer influence. But the Founders were heavy with lawyers as well.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I tend to agree that laws ought to be made by those who must follow them, therefore, should be crafted from the firm belief that they must make common sense and be easily comprehensible

        One of the basic requirements of common law was that laws were based on the traditions and mores of a society. They were not to be written around foreign/non-traditional ideas which went against the culture.

        America is known worldwide for having a ridiculous legal system. While having lawyers write laws may be a problem, I think the bigger problem is having so many lawyers and giving them such a large say in American life.

        The root of this may be the litigious nature of American citizens. Again, we are well know around the world to be law-suit happy.

        Why we are this way? I am not sure, but I suspect part of the reason is that the original traditions and mores of the British colonists became less dominant over the years with the influx of people from many different countries with many different traditions and mores. Things were no longer self-understood and the common consensus was no longer common.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Law is for the purpose of order and not to ensure moral society. However, good laws must always have a moral and ethical foundation.

        Frank, I think you’ve just illustrated that the two are connected.

        Laws are inherently about constructing a moral order. Order itself is a moral imperative. As much as Libertarians try to sidestep this by saying, “We’re for removing laws. We don’t want to tell people how to live”, such an approach is disingenuous, for anarchy is the moral order they would impose upon us. And there is a moral element to legalizing drugs, prostitution, open borders, etc. They’re just not honest enough to admit it.

        The moral order of the Left is (at least on paper) to create a equality-based social order, one based on atheism and where a social and environmental utopia is envisioned as the end goal. Such nasty and corrupting things as competition (especially via capitalism) will be done away with. And white people will be shown their place (who have always been natural oppressors) and people-of-color will be given their rightful share of the wealth. Women and other minorities will, in fact, be given special treatment and advantages because this is “fair” in order to make up for past discrimination. Religion, which underpins all kinds of “exclusiveness,” will be expunged from our social life, therefore a rejection of anything marginally Bible-based (such as the idea that there are men and women) will be rejected. We’ll therefore be gender-neutral, which also serves the “equality” model. Hell, we’ll even sanctify the idea of to men marrying each other.

        One can agree or disagree with this vision. But the Left is powerful because it at least has one. The GOP Establishment, for example, does not have one. And they are mortal enemies of the conservatives who do have one (which can be articulated, which I may do later…maybe Glenn the Greater can beat me to it). They do what they can to make it hard on conservatives to forward their vision of a moral and societal order. They’re dismissed as “wacko birds” or whatever.

        As a nation, we are a mix of influences. But there is always some kind of moral conception behind laws. How closely it is tied to any one religion is where the First Amendment comes in which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Because the concept of law, of society, of culture, and of a moral order cannot be articulated in any one phrase, even these wise words are problematic. They are not terribly specific and there is an entire history of interpreting them. But at one point, it was considered fine and normal for Congress to allocate money to print bibles to be given away. From what I understand, the point of the First Amendment is not about eradicating religious influence but preventing any one denomination from being sanctified and enforced by government to the exclusion of others, as was the practiced in many of the states.

        Now the First Amendment is interpreted by liberals to mean “No religious influence whatsoever.” It’s what I call the “not that” mindset. And once one is committed to reject religious influence (as it has been) in our civic life (particularly that of the Judeo-Christian influence), one is left to walk the line of pure evil, for if murder is wrong, according to Jews and Christians, there must be something right about it, thus the abortion industry. Whether we like it or not, we are not an Islamic country. And if we were, that would make America a very different place. But we are, in the broad scope, still more or less governed by the ideas in The Ten Commandments and the bible: Don’t steal, don’t murder, do not favor the rich or the poor with the law. And these idea have a long tradition of being tied to “What works.” Good religions tend to do that.

        So if you reject that, one is in the position of rejecting, say, the idea that 2 plus 2 equals 4. Try doing any valid math if you do so. And that is certainly why in Orwell’s “1984” Big Brother must insist that people accept that two plus two equals five. Normal and workable morality (especially including the idea of objective truth) has been rejected and de-legitimized. There is then nothing left to do but to try to legitimize that which is not legitimate. So whatever one believes metaphysically about the Judeo-Christian tradition, when you reject it and play the political game of “Not that,” you end up trying to make two plus two equal five.

        And we play that game when we insist that laws have nothing to do with morality. That is, at best, a modern notion. Libertarians are one faction stuck in this game as they wish to reduce the entire moral order to one word: “liberty.” And this one word can’t possible hold a good or even workable moral order, for in this conception any government constraints (which goes against their “non-coercion” dogma) is a violation of liberty. How one can then even have a road system where it is enforced that you drive on the right side of the road, and at a given speed, is never explained.

        So from the get-go, Libertarians are kooks. Here at StubbornThings it is an inherent part of the journey that we rediscover the moral conception that has been trashed by the Marxists. That doesn’t mean one has to believe in the Trinity or that Moses parted the Red Sea. I remain skeptical in that regard. But unless we reclaim the basics of the moral order (which is grounded in “what works”) we’ll forever be doing the bidding of the Left.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Part of the nebulous nature of laws represents the natural result of lawyers writing them. But by requiring lawyers as often as possible, they also benefit their own profession. In addition, vague laws that have to be “interpreted” by regulatory bureaucrats are convenient for legislators (especially liberals). All of these aspects strike against the rule of law.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          One can appreciate the chicken-or-the-egg aspect of this: You need to write laws specific enough that lawyers can’t pervert them for their own uses. And who is best at doing so? Lawyers.

          At some point you can’t enforce things such as “Words mean things.” You just have a widespread cultural agreement that they do. That they don’t has been legitimized by having dimwits such as Sotomayor on the Supreme Court who in one case previous to her appointment specifically favored one person over another merely because of their race and class — not the clear letter and intent of the law.

          Perversion of objective meaning is what the Left and Progressives are about. They are so sure of their own moral superiority, laws are for lesser beings (and generally believe that laws that existed prior to them were completely about favoring some vested interest or another). Good god, aren’t we seeing this with Hillary of late? These types thing that law is to keep the little man in line, but not the Specially Anointed.

          No wonder America was born. We got tired of arbitrary and pernicious law. But now the opposite mindset is in power in the highest offices (and the lowest offices, and the vast unelected bureaucracy offices).

          • Timothy Lane says:

            One could always ask lawyers for advice on how to write laws so that they would be legally clear as well as clear to ordinary people. Robert Heinlein, in a little fantasy in Expanded Universe, suggested a requirement that all laws be in plain English understandable by ordinary people (i.e., non-lawyers).

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Let’s be honest. The lawyers have become a class of people who are a pest on society. Whether that is because we’ve become a litigious people, I don’t know. But If I had a son or daughter, I would no more want them to be a lawyer than I’d want them to work for organized crime or have an alley for an address.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                Yes indeedie. See the below piece.

                http://www.stubbornthings.org/the-new-clergy/

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I refer to ATLA (American Trial Lawyers Association) as the Thieves’ Guild. Hence, Dick the Butcher’s “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” in Henry the Sixth Part Two. Robert Heinlein (in The Number of the Beast, a decent novel that collapsed at the end) had an alternate America with a history that included “the year they killed all the lawyers”.

          • Bell Phillips says:

            Sometimes people say things that make something nebulous in your head just click into concrete clarity. Sometimes, you’ve heard the same thing many times before but it just didn’t make all the synapses connect.

            “… law is to keep the little man in line, but not the Specially Anointed” is one of those things.

            I will confess to going through a bout of libertarianism earlier in life. It is very appealing in its simplicity and goal of an absolute minimum government. But eventually you have to realize that it’s unworkable. Still, I validate my positions on politics and policy by first asking what the libertarian view of it would be. If libertarians would find a law or regulation obtrusive, the bar becomes very high to justify it.

            This leads me to often try to rationalize and articulate why I think it’s ok to, for instance, prohibit smoking weed, but wrong to prohibit incandescent light bulbs. (These are two *very* bad examples for my point – but good examples fail me right now.)

            The difference is that I don’t smoke pot, but Al Gore lives in a 10,000 sq. ft mansion and flies around in a private jet.

            Conservatives don’t write laws telling other people to do what they themselves don’t or won’t. Making abortion illegal just doesn’t affect them because they don’t want to do it in the first place.

            Liberals, on the other hand, write laws to make other people do what they won’t. Starving homeless guy on the street? I’m not sending a check to (or working at) the shelter, make some rich guy pay for it.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    “A nation of laws, not of men” is exactly what we’re supposed to be. Anarchy is no fun, nor is living according to the dictates of a king or, of course, a dictator himself (or herself).

    Even imperfect laws are far preferable to no laws or laws that can change according to fuzzy interpretations, be added by fiat, or be changed willy-nilly. One of the grievances I still sorta hold over my own father was that I didn’t mind that he expected much or was sometimes hard. But his rules were always so arbitrary. This type of governance is crazy-making for a child just as it is for a whole nation. No one quite knows how to act under such a system.

    And this is EXACTLY (sorry for the all-caps, but this is one of the few times I’ll use them) why Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments” said: “There is no freedom without the law.”

    This is not a concept that libertarians understand very well, for instance. And being held to the law is inconvenient for tyrants and delusional do-gooders who think that “law” is for those with lesser beings who lack the knowledge or high motivations that obviously guide the Anointed Ones of Compassion and Caring.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Sure there’s freedom without law — freedom for the bullies who are always around and willing to take everyone else’s freedom. That’s why we need some degree of government. The problem is when the government becomes so big and intrusive that it becomes even worse than the bullies (and perhaps even co-opts them, as in A Clockwork Orange).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        That’s right. Anarchy serves the bullies. It serves the most violent, the psychopaths, and the most unscrupulous. And when we get to the point where we are now when the laws serves the unscrupulous, that isn’t much better for then the bullies, the psychopaths, and most unscrupulous do what they do under the cover of the law….and thus we lose respect for the law and this cycle keeps feeding itself.

        There are damn few George Washingtons being made these days.

        • FJ Rocca says:

          It’s interesting to consider that there was once an Anarchy Movement. In her book The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman talks about it in some detail. Aparently, Oscar Wilde flirted briefly with it.

          Anarchy is obviously unworkable because it destroys society and devours freedom. A group of socialists formed a school of Anarchy thought called “Anarcho Syndicalism” which supposedly addressed this lawlessness issue. It said that in place of government labor unions should make and execute the laws, with the claim that labor unions were not government, therefore, the definition of Anarchy prevailed. Of course, this is ridiculous, because the labor unions would then become the government. Imagine such a thing!

          Yes some people took Anarchy seriously. It’s tragic to think of Sacco and Vanzetti being executed on possibly trumped up charges. They were accused of committing an armed robbery, but there was sufficient evidence of their innocence that people believe they were executed because they supposedly supported Anarchy. Incidentally, I’m originally from Massachusetts, so their names were common place in my upbringing. Later, when I lived in New York, I recall seeing a sign displayed at the Rosedale Fish Market in Manhattan that read: “Bartolomeo Vanzetti. A fishmonger remembers!” Some people remember the case too well. Sacco and Vanzetti were later pardoned by then Governor Michael Dukakis, I believe in the 1990s.

          Anarchy is one of those absurdist notions of the 19th Century that, mercifully, did not take hold. Unfortunately other absurd ideas did take root, Socialism among them. It continues to plague us because we continue to have in society immature people who embrace its adolescent premises.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Anarcho Syndicalism

            The first time I heard that phrase was in the great Monty Python sketch from The Holy Grail. And, wow, imagine a time when liberals (which is an apt description of Monty Python) actually made fun of socialists and other cranks. Times have changed. This is a great bit of political commentary. That might as well be Frank Marshall Davis and Barry Obama digging in the mud.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            When captured, Sacco and Vanzetti between them had the murder weapon and the weapon of the murdered guard, and never gave a convincing explanation for where they got them.

            The greatest strength of anarchism was in Spain, where it was a mass movement, especially among the rural population in the poorer regions (such as Andalusia). They favored a left-wing, collectivist local government in practice rather than what most of us would think of as anarchy. Actually anarchy, as Jose Maria Gil Robles pointed out in a Cortes speech (I discussed it in a previous article here), is something no society can survive.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Yes indeedie. See the below piece.

    I’m taking applications now, Mr. Kung, for someone with WordPress experience who will develop a system of coherent tags (or use what exists now, or add to them) and go back through all the articles and blog posts and add some tags to them. I realize that most people do not even attempt the barest effort of looking at the various site features, such as the Categories/Tags page that exists under the “Archives” menu at the top.

    But for those who go beyond “Out of sight/out of mind” I’d like to at least give them the capability to put their hands on the types of articles that they are looking for. I may do so myself. But time is an issue.

    I used to let people put their own tags on articles but that was just a mess. They’d add 10 tags to it, seemingly in hopes of getting hits, hits, hits. And I’m fine with getting hits. But, geez, if you put so many tags on an article, you make it worthless. And if it’s applicable to have a dozen tags associated with an article, how well-focused could it be and who would want to read it?

    So a real tag-organization will take some time. The tag in question might be “Plague of Lawyers” or something like that.

  5. Timothy Lane says:

    David French has a nice article on NRO about Kentucky heroine Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk who’s standing up to the faggy-boos (as I called them in my response), the SCOTUS 5, and the Anti-Christian Liberties Union on homosexual “marriage”. He admits that her actions, at this stage, are lawless and reolutionary — but so was the decision which forced her to make this choice. (It has been pointed out that those who seek office should be ready to do its full job. But when she was elected, homosexual “marriage” was legally void according to the Kentucky Constitution thanks to a 2004 referendum.) The link is:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/423376/kentucky-clerk-marriage-licenses-supreme-court

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