The Modern Survival Guide #58
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And one of the things I try to do in this series is give people good advice that stays on the right side of the law. But… that may not entirely be the case in this article.
So let’s get one thing straight before we dive in — laws are important and you should obey them as much as possible. There’s a whole host of reasons for this statement, so I’ll hit some highlights real quick.
Why You Should Obey the Law (Most of the Time)
Laws are important because, in our society, they (usually) represent the will of the majority. That’s a big deal. It’s the outward, tangible expression of the ideals of living under a democracy. It’s the foundation of the legitimacy of our form of government and society — we obey rules because the rules are made by people who represent our interests, morals, and values. They’re our rules; we own them.
Laws are also important because they are a time-tested formula for creating certainty in life. We make laws, in part, so that we know what tomorrow is going to look like. A lawful society is an orderly society, and in an orderly society the average person can figure out how to open a business, raise a family, navigate the culture, and generally live their life. Orderly societies, in this sense, are profitable societies to live in — or at least, they make profitable living possible.¹
Additionally, laws are our primary method of upholding society-wide standards and practices. You know when people say, “There oughta be a law!” — this is what’s going on. That person has encountered a piece of reality they want to change, and they’re reaching for the most legitimate, most accepted, most efficient way to do that. Law is important because it gives us a commonly accepted set of rules that make the world work the way we want it to, for better or worse.
And increasingly, laws are important because they set the water mark of a civilization. When we look around the world, and we see instances of racial, ethnic, and sexual equality — that’s because of law. When we proudly state our freedoms of speech and our rights as citizens — that’s because of law. When we see the corrupt and evil dragged down and made to answer for their crimes — that’s because of law. When we feel pride and awe at a pristine natural landscape — that’s because of law. Laws can make the world better by setting the rules of society in such a way that excesses and abuses are controlled and mitigated, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
So, for the most part, and taking one thing with another, most of the time you should follow the law. By doing so you contribute to a more stable, predictable, profitable society. Most of the time it’s worth it to you and to society as a whole to follow the law. Most of the time.
When You Shouldn’t Obey the Law
Look… sometimes you shouldn’t (or shouldn’t have to) obey the law. Sometimes the law is a tool of evil, of repression, and of unfair advantage. Sometimes the law is ridiculously poorly written. Sometimes the law is silly. Most of the time it’s worth following the law. But sometimes it’s worth breaking it, if that’s done in service to higher goals, and sometimes you shouldn’t have to follow the law, because the law is dumb. Here are some of those times:
- When the law is unjust: If a law is unjustly threatening your life, unduly threatening your livelihood, or enforcing a repressive regime, you probably have cause to break it. In a democracy, we expect that laws are passed for the service of the people. ALL the people. And we expect that laws are passed with due representation, within the scope of the Constitution, and without infringing on our rights as citizens. If these things are not the case, the law (however it may have been passed) is likely unjust, and civil disobedience becomes the order of the day. For reference, the Civil Rights Movement is the modern go-to standard for this sort of thing.
- When the law doesn’t make any sense: Look… there are laws out there that we all just commonly ignore, because they’re wacky. Like in Tennessee, for example, it’s illegal to share your Netflix password. Do they seriously think that’s a law that’s going to get followed? Or like in New York, where it’s illegal for a group of people to wear masks in public (Halloween, anyone?). Or like the 17 states in the US which still have sodomy laws on the books.² If a law is dumb enough that large numbers of people routinely ignore it in order to simply live their lives, it’s probably not the end of the world to break it.
- When the law isn’t enforceable: Sometimes laws are passed without any provision made for their enforcement. I’m looking at you again, sodomy laws. What, were cops planning to patrol people’s bedrooms? Get real. If the legislators didn’t think far enough ahead to figure out how to enforce a law, it probably wasn’t well-considered enough to be on the books in the first place, and it’s probably not the end of the world if you break it. Interestingly, there is some legal provision for this — Desuetude, a legal term that refers to the practice of allowing unenforceable laws to lapse naturally.
- When the law is strongly in opposition to your moral principles: Aaaand now we get into the really dangerous territory. Look, this one’s slippery; no doubt about it. This is how abortion clinic bombings happen. But. Within reasonable limits, which we’ll discuss in a minute, you must stand by your moral principles. This is one of the things that separates a citizen from a subject. You are your own master. You have autonomy. You are responsible for your own actions. Never let an immoral law keep you from exercising your moral judgement. But for the love of God, keep it sane please.³
Any instance where you break the law is a perilous moment. The legal system is dispassionate, mechanical, and generally slow to act, but that turns it into a soulless meat grinder when you get caught in its jaws. If you break the law, expect to be caught, and prepare yourself for the consequences in whatever way seems best to you. Now let’s talk about what it means to disobey.
Types of Disobedience
There are three main ways to disobey a law, to my way of thinking, and there’s a subtle difference between them. They are:
- Civil disobedience — taking deliberate, direct action with the express intent of making a statement or identifying a problem with the law.
- Ignoring the law — going about your daily life as if the law in question wasn’t a concern.
- Criminal action — breaking the law for personal gain.
These may seem practically similar, but like I said — subtle differences.
Civil disobedience is about principled rebellion. It’s about doing something to deliberately throw in the face of society to make a point. This is the type of lawbreaking that was practiced in the Civil Rights Movement — the individuals involved were breaking the law for the express purpose of getting caught in a very public fashion, thereby drawing attention to the injustice of the law. Civil disobedience is characterized by selfless action. It’s not about personal gain, and there’s an element of martyrdom to it.
Ignoring the law, on the other hand, is what a lot of us do with regard to laws regulating sex or the sharing of Netflix passwords. These instances are less about making a point and more about simply trying to live life without certain limitations getting in the way. Ignoring the law isn’t about public disobedience, but rather it’s a form of disparagement. It’s the citizen saying, effectively, “This is dumb enough that I’m not going to make a big deal of it, but I’m not going to do it either… and I don’t think anyone cares enough to charge me.”
Finally, criminal action is to be avoided, because criminals are breaking the law explicitly for personal gain. Criminals are of the opinion that laws simply shouldn’t apply to them. Note that this is an attitude largely absent in the prior two forms — someone engaging in civil disobedience is showing respect for the law even as they break it, and someone ignoring a law usually isn’t doing so maliciously, they just have recognized that an aspect of law isn’t useful. Criminals, on the other hand, simply reject law on the whole.
In general, my advice is don’t be a criminal. I know, this only makes sense from my particular stratified viewpoint — the legal system says you’re a criminal in all three cases. But the legal system is in place to impose order, and that’s not what we’re talking about right now; we’re talking about being a responsible citizen. And sometimes the two concepts are not interlinked.
Practical Obedience to Law
To sum up, practically speaking, what all this means is that most of the time, in most circumstances, you should follow the law. It’s usually the case that law exists for a good reason, or at least an okay reason, or at least a reason that doesn’t cause you to curse.
But sometimes, in some places, you are going to have a moral, ethical, and/or patriotic obligation to disobey. And those should be your touchstones for outright disobedience — if you can’t justify civil disobedience on one of those grounds, don’t do it. Other times, you’re going to encounter laws that simply don’t make sense, or in some cases aren’t possible to follow. And in those times you may be justified for not bothering about the law.
But don’t be a criminal. Criminals undermine the social order and actively harm their fellow man. And don’t be a nutjob. Nutjobs take disobedience waaaay too far and hurt innocent people. And for God’s sake, do not engage in domestic terrorism on any of these grounds! We live in a democracy. You may be morally obligated to civil disobedience, but you are never obligated to take lives if yours or your loved ones’ are not in danger. Civil disobedience is about changing the law, not running riot over it.
If you have to disobey, keep it real, keep it controlled, understand your objectives, and work to achieve them while breaking as few laws as possible. And if you’re ignoring a law, make sure that there really is no good reason to follow it.
Otherwise, it’s a survival imperative, both for you and for your society, to follow the law.
¹Yes, even repressive predictable societies. Any level of social order is massively better than chaos. I know, I’m channeling my inner Hobbes here a bit. That doesn’t mean I support dictators, it just means I’m not a fan of anarchy.
²Before anyone jumps on their moral high horse, it’s worth a reminder that “sodomy” laws didn’t (and don’t) just apply to anal or homosexual sex, but rather to any “unnatural” sexual act — in the point of the view of those laws’ framers, of course. That often included oral sex and any position other than missionary. So… yeah. Most of us have broken the hell out of at least one sodomy law that’s on the books somewhere. See? You learned something today.
³I know this will wade into the gay rights debate, and frankly I welcome that discussion. Sufficed to say, I don’t think your moral landscape is being threatened if you, as a conservative Christian, bake a cake for a gay couple (since they are manifestly not adherents of your moral convictions, and therefore not your problem), and I think you have an insufficiently developed moral compass if you think that’s a good legal hill to die on if you get sued because you didn’t bake a cake.