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Natural Law and Its Law-Breaker Extraordinary

Behold, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.1

~ Axel Oxenstiern (1583–1634), Chancellor of Sweden

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.2

~ William Butler Yeats, Nobel laureate, 1921

An Old Testament story on the Human Condition, the Human Comedy: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.3

So an angry Lord Jehovah thundered down on terrified Adam and Eve fleeing through the Gates of Paradise, as that unrighteous pair, beguiled by the Serpent, lured by the Forbidden Fruit, were banished from the Garden of Eden. And from its endless bounty. So were they – as well as you, Dear Reader, in their long line of progeny – condemned to ceaseless scarcity, including precious life itself.

And so Adam and Eve's Original Sin haunts you in today’s free trade-challenged war-weary world of six billion mortal souls, with state intervention as the universal religion given to curing but – oddly – actually worsening overall scarcity every time. How come? Let me reply with a question:

Well, don't all too many of us homo sapiens worship and empower the Almighty State to defy Moses's First Commandment, Thou shalt have no other gods before Me, his Eighth, Thou shalt not steal, and his Tenth, Thou shalt not covet … while defying natural law and Moses’s unsaid if implied 11th Commandment, Thou shalt be wary of the Prince, for he has nothing to give save what he takes away…?

Defying? Yes, if also reaping retribution, as night follows day. Or per an ancient couplet:

In Adam's fall, We sinned all.

Or, briefer still, per the title of John Milton's masterwork (1667): Paradise Lost. Here Milton sees the great God State, ungodlike, harming you, in war intervention sweepingly so, saying:4

"Who overcomes by force hath overcome but half his foe."

So the lesson from Genesis: So was born man's daily hunger-pangs reminder of natural law, including its other derived laws such as gravitation and here in particular scarcity in the face of man’s urge to live. Hence his lifelong need and search for life-sustaining bread if at the cost of toil, time, trouble.

Trouble that darkens, boomerangs, as man seeks an easy out, as he deals in give-ups or sellouts to the great God State, our 21st-century Leviathan, which lays on you – be not surprised, Dear Reader – unintended and most unkind liens like war, inflation, high taxes, liberty lost. So into many minds across the West comes ever anew that Grand Illusion, a glittery New Deal ever fading into a Raw Deal, a breach of natural law, a sorry bargain.

Well, just what is natural law? Roman lawyer and senator Cicero, a proponent of natural law, put it this way:5 “The foundation of law is not opinion but nature.” Or per Jefferson in 1776 in opening the U.S. Declaration of Independence and citing “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Greek philosophers Heraclitus, Aristotle, and Plato and the Romans Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, often through the school of Stoicism with its doctrine of duty and fitting disposition, held that man had to live in accordance with nature and its laws to win moral freedom. Later Aquinas, Grotius, and Spinoza in different ways saw natural law as ground for morality and logical thinking.

Or as Murray Rothbard, the brilliant student of Mises, in seeking the derivation of natural rights and citing John Locke’s Civil Government, accepted the hypothesis of natural law, saying in his book, For a New Liberty:6

“Natural law theory rests on the insight that we live in a world of more than one – in fact, a vast number – of entities, and that each entity has distinct and specific properties, a distinct ‘nature,’ which can be investigated by man’s reason ….”

And on natural rights, Rothbard said:7

” … the natural rights statement of the libertarian position is to divide it into parts, and to begin with the basic axiom of the ‘right to self-ownership.’ The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to ‘own’ his or her body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right of self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered by coercive molestation.” Rothbard thus reminds us that the modus operandi of capitalism boils down to but three words: private property rights, led by the right to self-ownership.

Note here that Rothbard hits coercion twice. Yet coercion is the very means of state intervention, the very means by which the Western individual has been marginalized and our state has been burgeoned into Leviathan. And burgeons still. Yet see how modern man dotes on funny if at base unfunny Leviathan, and how he winks his eye at its rooted natural law failing of state interventionism including organized if legal kleptomania and military adventurism. In 1944 F.A. Hayek called the process The Road to Serfdom.

Anyway, much liberty is lost, yes – but much hope, no. Hope by learning of natural law – here, for example, its sub-law on human frailty, on a historical political mistake (recall Rome’s “bread and circuses”), on a misbegotten wish:

Beat scarcity via a secular religion of statism, via worshipping a misty yet wise, just, and compassionate State, a realized ideal. Enjoy then a bread-upon-the-waters miracle of majoritarian democracy: Hey, let others pay. Just vote yourself manna from heaven, and, presto, it's there. Sure.

Yet isn't political democracy still a good idea, up to a point? Maybe – a big maybe – but aren’t America and the West long past that point? Didn't today’s Living Constitution in fact die at the hands of the US Supreme Court in 1937? For the more you study Mr. Bloated Leviathan – revered icon of Democracy Unlimited – the more you see his special interests at work, including much of the standing government, media, and intelligentsia, acting out a film noir, chasing a mirage of “just” – really unjust, unwise – interventionism. See then an official Pied Piper lead astray, however democratically, childish adults over the globe, blinding them from economic reality. As in the People’s Republic of America.

For what is democracy? Beyond its acclaimed miracle powers is its Greek root: rule or autokratia by the people, the demos. But who rules whom? Why does state hegemony seem to reign over society, why does the free individual fade across the West, why does political majoritarianism seduce the multitude and quash you – or, as neatly put by satirist P. J. O'Rourke in 2002, why be against me? So I ask: Natural law, anyone?

Whither then today's tarred capitalism, a royal if perhaps ebbing road to social accord and rising prosperity? And whither society duped here, there, everywhere? Hear enticing interventionist music: “Save the World for Democracy” (1917 and 2004), Medicare, Social Security, affordable housing, affordable medicine, affirmative action, public [read government] schools, “gun control,” safety nets, import protection, rent control, freeways, farm price supports, occupational licensing, “War on Drugs,” “job creation,” and endless other backfiring put-ons. Backfiring? Yes, per Peterson’s Law (adopted from Mises): State intervention tends to make things worse.

So check Leviathan up close and what do you get: a carnival hawker of something for nothing, a stealthy transfer artist, a rash defier of natural and constitutional law, a lawbreaker and prevaricator extraordinary. Or per 19th-century Frederic Bastiat: "The state is that great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else."8

Or Jefferson seeing in 1801 a means of avoiding war in his First Inaugural Address: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."

Lessons unheard or forgotten today. As our Founding Fathers look down and weep.

For didn't they ask us, with a long indictment of George III as a case in point: Shouldn't government be feared, watched, limited? Wouldn't they have wondered about President George W. Bush never casting a veto in his first three years in office and running up a budget deficit this year of some $500 billion? Wouldn't they have seen President Clinton as wrongheaded in holding, "You can't love your country and hate your government"?9

Hate it perhaps, or laugh at it, pity it – and us – oh yes. Or per Thomas Paine in Common Sense in 1776: The state is a "necessary evil" Or as Jefferson wrote to E. Carrington in 1788: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Or per German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: "The legislative process is not unlike the rank conversion of pigs into sausages." Or as Winston Churchill conceded: "Democracy is the least awful way to get a peaceful exchange of political power."

Meanwhile, see the law of scarcity hit you the more so because conventional wisdom views, brazenly, the power-and-tax-hungry state as something of a God, as the fount of our bounty, as hinted in the sly if winning 1992 Clinton-Carville campaign slogan: "It's the Economy, Stupid"? But shouldn't Messrs. Clinton and Carville have said: "It's the Government, Stupid"? Or better: "It's the Unlimited Majoritarian Government, Stupid"?

Well, what of unloved if highly productive capitalism, the economic right arm of a free society? I say see capitalism still as super social cooperation, as answering unmotherly Mother Nature which orders you: Make ends meet, match income with outgo, work or perish, sending this omen to you and your family, to giant GM and GE, to tiny farms-shops-offices, to even NGOs: those oxymoronic "nonprofit," non-government organizations. So each of us, all of us, high and low, young and old, singly or organized, must face up to nature's daily dish of scarcity. As must all national and lesser governments, none of which is above natural law. Bringing to mind the legend of King Canute ordering the incoming tide to stop. And getting his feet wet.

What now? The lesson of history, natural law, and private property rights rings out loud and clear in the West: Try liberty. Produce and trade, save and invest, via division of labor, via free markets and free minds, via Adam Smith's great metaphor of the Invisible Hand doing social good, per his line in The Wealth of Nations (1776): “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but their regard to their own interest.” Or check the definition of economics by Lionel Robbins of the London School of Economics (1932):10

"The science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."

Alternatives. Choices. But what of the case of choice-denying democracy, as your fellow citizens rear up and tell you, via the state, what you must do – e.g., enter Medicare, like it or not? So “democratic” statism locks you, a trapped minority of one, into welfarism, monopoly politics, naked coercion – hanging you on a cross of majoritarianism, of state-defied natural law.

Recall then pretty evenly divided Florida or even a 50-50 national split between the GOP and the Democrats in the 2000 election, as Al Gore got the majority popular vote, slimly, and as George W. Bush, aided by the US Supreme Court, got the decisive Electoral College vote, also slimly. Winner take all? But what, please, of the other half, the losing half? What a way to run a railroad!

Yet note your other key option, at hand: Perception of our Other Democracy, the profound economic democracy of the free market, seen by F. A. Hayek as a "marvel," by Ludwig Mises and W. H. Hutt as “consumer sovereignty,” a 100 percent consumer voting and firmly ruling democracy, with spontaneous minority action and representation, in tune with natural law. Recall Mises in his Human Action:11

"The direction of all economic affairs is in the market society a task of the entrepreneurs. Theirs is the control of production. They are at the helm and steer the ship. A superficial observer would believe that they are supreme. But they are not. They are bound to obey unconditionally the captain's orders. The captain is the consumer. Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that."

Isn't state intervention then a dumb way to run an otherwise free society of consumers and producers when they're one and the same people if in different modes at different times? Too, doesn't interventionism sap people as well as scarcity-thwarting capitalism – with its warts, yes, but only on its bad actors?

Back to you, Dear Reader, bent on choosing wisely in and out of the market, ever after what Jefferson called "the pursuit of happiness." Says your dismal scientist: No matter if you choose little things such as what book to read, what to wear, or where to dine, or big things such as what career to follow, where to live, or whom to marry, you must ipso facto give up other options.

Feminists saying "Have it all" are, with all due respect, wrong. Neither they nor you nor the state can have it all. Never. Look. Even if you decide to stay put in a given situation – to do nothing – that's still a choice. Human action or inaction is thus ever at a cost of options denied. Choice involves denial. Per natural law.

So behold its hard fact of opportunity cost, a law lighting up the related law of supply and demand on pricing in production and consumption, or other laws tied to natural law that the state simply can’t repeal. But how it tries, politically! Tries to fake free lunches via spin such as "Centrism," "Middle of the Road," and "The Third Way."

So ignorance of this natural-law, no-free-lunch fix tells why things go wrong, why state intervention into peaceful private activity runs afoul, why it is but at best a zero-sum game in contrast to the positive-sum economic-growth game of capitalism, why it at once creates, confounds and crowds you out, Mr. Forgotten Man/Ms. Forgotten Woman – to tap the idea of Yale social scientist William Graham Sumner in 1883. Or to tap the idea of economists Nobel laureate James Buchanan and his colleague Gordon Tullock in their concept of Public Choice: Invocation of "the public interest" by legislators, bureaucrats, and special interests gets to hide burning yet – surprise! – unmentioned self-interest.

So you and the rest of West get hooked early in the 21st century to paternal if most unsafe authoritarianism, to the Actonian law that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So our patriotism-preaching but lawbreaking state is bent on, advertently or inadvertently, breaking its natural – aside from its constitutional – bounds. With this Smithian irony: On tbe “great chessboard of human society,” as Adam Smith told us in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759),12 “every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislator might choose to impress upon it.” With of course natural law ever having the final say.

Final? Yes, Dear Reader, but no need to push it to the limit. Back to hope, to grasping natural law. No untenable mindset lasts forever. I recall, as an ex-IBM employee (pre-World War II mail clerk), an old IBM one-word motto displayed all over the workplace: “Think.” Good idea, for the human brain like the rest of an unexercised body can atrophy for lack of use. So, if you will: Think natural law, communicate it, stay tuned, and enjoy the show.

Endnotes:

  1. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 15th ed., p. 263.
  2. Ibid., p. 714.
  3. Ibid., p. 7.
  4. Ibid., p. 283.
  5. H. L. Mencken, A New Dictionary of Quotations (Knopf, 1942, p. 655.)
  6. Rothbard, For A New Liberty, Macmillan, N.Y., 1973, p. 25.
  7. Ibid., pp. 26–27.
  8. Frdric Bastiat, The Law, translated by Dean Russell, FEE, 1998. p. ix.
  9. Quoted by Joseph Sobran, syndicated column, April 15, 2003.
  10. Bartlett, op. cit., p. 842.
  11. Mises, Human Action, Yale, 1949, p. 270.
  12. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Arlington House ed., 1969, p. 343.

February 26, 2004