Western Civilization is the history of bathing culture and civic society in Judeo-Christian values. It is what progressively, over several millenia, brought the principles of freedom, liberty and human rights to places of honor in the hearts and imagination of men – such great honor that even tyrants must give them lip service as they seek to overturn them. For all it accomplished, the Enlightenment was a disaster for two significant reasons. First, it completely misunderstood the fundamental nature of man, making of him a mere ‘consumer’ like all other animals rather than the ‘creator,’ formed in God’s image, that he is. This leads fools to believe that man is satisfied when his material needs are met. The rise of that lie to cultural acceptance is largely why children shoot children in the inner city over a pair of tennis shoes. Man finds satisfaction when he joyfully participates with God in the act of creation through the work of his own hands. Modern ‘progressives’ are eager to give man all the things he needs except dignity and what is fundamental to him – which they retain to themselves.
Secondly, the Enlightenment sought to divorce reason and faith. Reason without faith is savage. Reason without faith ultimately becomes incoherent and unreasonable. It has always seemed a delicious irony to me that, during the Dark Ages, when kings and warlords thought power was the only faith worth having and sought to keep common people ignorant and dependent, the sole refuge of reason was the Church, also the refuge of faith. Ah yes, I know the modern libel that the Church brought on the Dark Ages. That is just the heirs of those kings and warlords defending their own in hopes that the folksies don’t catch on to their game. During those benighted times, Churchmen saw what was happening and got busy laboriously copying old texts – including most of the non-religious classical antiquities – so that the accumulated wisdom of mankind was not lost to history. It was during the Dark Ages that the Church, through the explosion of the Monastic Movement, laid the groundwork for the modern concept of libraries, hospitals and universities. The light of reason flickered on in those monasteries when the last great darkness came upon the world. Those kings and warlords who thought themselves far too shrewd and wise to concern themselves with faith, only with amassing temporal power, are notably lost in the ash heaps of history. They built nothing, accomplished nothing and left nothing behind.
Justice, itself, is largely a Judeo-Christian innovation. All societies have had rules, or laws. In most, the purpose of those laws has been to protect the power and perquisites that the elite had taken by force; to secure the despot. Even the most hideous institutional atrocities were lawful. The gulags of the Soviet Union were lawful, as were the Nazis’ concentration camps. If the ‘rule of law’ merely means there is a statute written it is no protection at all: just a means of securing the perquisites and priveleges of a ruling class. But that is not what the phrase meant at its origin or is intended to mean now. The rise of the “rule of law” was an attempt to mirror the infallible justice and mercy of the Judeo-Christian God through systems that would secure the rights of man while ameliorating specific men’s flaws and vanity. When Moses stepped down from the mountain with the two tablets of the Ten commandments, it was the first step in a real “rule of law,” a code that would apply to all, rich or poor, subject or king, recognizing that all are subject to the same King of Kings. Over millennia this effort, like man himself, has advanced by fits and starts, weighed down by the temptations of original sin but reaching out to the perfection of God to ever refine it.
One of the greatest advances in making the “rule of law” synonymous with justice was the development of the concept of the rights of man. This was refined through the concept of natural law, which posits that each man is endowed with certain natural rights from the moment of his creation; that these rights are endowed by nature’s Creator; and are inalienable. That means these rights precede the existence of any government. The American founders go so far as to say the main purpose of any government is to secure these rights, which they enumerate – and that fidelity to that mission is the acid test of the legitimacy of any government. The American founders argued that the citizens of any nation which consistently and persistently violated those rights did not just have the right, but had a positive duty, to overthrow that illegitimate government. The old Soviet Union introduced many errors into the world. With the enthusiasm for the rights of man having become the goal of peoples throughout the world, the Soviets found a deviously subtle way to pervert the concept. It began to speak of the “economic” rights it granted its citizens – and maintained that the extension of economic rights, as it preferred, or political rights, as the United States preferred, was just a matter of taste with no moral consequence.
Taking a cue from the old Enlightenment error that man is fundamentally a consumer rather than a creator, this subverted the very concept of right in two key ways. First, it muddled the concept of right with entitlement. A society may choose to grant an entitlement and it may be good, but a right is something that attaches to a man from creation, not an indulgence of the society he is born into. Second, it undermines the reality of the source of rights. Who grants a right may revoke it. What God endows, man cannot revoke. What men grant, men can revoke. By lumping rights in with entitlements, governments implicitly assert their right to revoke what God has endowed. By encouraging man to think like a consumer, which will never satisfy him, rather than the creator he is, it enlists men to collaborate in their own enslavement. Think about it: Nations which have a name beginning with “The Peoples Republic of…” never are. Societies which emphasize economic rights are populated by people with no rights at all – who are also impoverished. The whole thing is just a more clever gambit to accomplish through guile what warlords of old accomplished through force – the subjugation of large populations. In order to grant those entitlements it calls rights, government must persuade people to cede it power from their own store of rights.
A just “rule of law” is a reaching out to God, Himself. In order to mimic His perfect impartiality and justice in this imperfect vale of tears, man must establish certain characteristics to approach justice and redress corruption. The following characteristics are by no means comprehensive, but are indispensable to a just “rule of law:”
1) Equitable. It must apply to all equally. This will not stop abuse entirely, but as the powerful must suffer from the same abuses as everyone else, it provides powerful social motivation for quick recognition and correction of injustice.
2) Reasonable. It must confine itself only to those things necessary to the whole society – and its decisions on those matters must be rational. For example, to enact a regulation requiring a uniform backward slant in cursive writing would be to tend to what is not government’s business. If this abuse occurs, it is not just nannyism that results. Officials can deceive themselves when pontificating on easy, meaningless things that they are accomplishing something. This will lead them to fret over the easy, meaningless things, while ignoring the hard things that are actually their responsibility. It corrodes the foundation of the society.
3) Practical. It must be designed to stop behavior injurious to others or the whole society in the most minimally intrusive way possible. For example, the right of a man to swing his arm in whatever weird way he chooses shall not be constrained, but that right ends at the tip of another man’s nose.
4) Predictable. A man who knows the character of his society should reasonably be able to intuit whether an action he does not know the statute on is lawful. This requires that the volume of statutory law should be minimal – and regularly pruned by legislatures. The greater the abundance and scope of the laws, the more likely they are to be arbitrary, capricious and contradictory. How many nuisance laws are revoked should be (but is not) a key benchmark in assessing legislators.
5) Effective. While protecting the rights of the accused, the law must succeed in constraining injurious behavior while not meddling in neutral behavior. If the rights of the accused are insufficiently protected, the whole people feels an oppressive weight. But if the rights of the accused become such a priority that injurious behavior flourishes, the whole people feel an equally oppressive weight. The latter disorder also contributes to official corruption. If a police officer or officer of the court repeatedly catches or prosecutes dangerous criminals only to repeatedly see them released on technicalities, he would have to be an idiot not to ease up on all the dangerous enemies he is making – and spend his time concentrating on less serious misdemeanors – or worse. Affected people will make rational decisions for their own protection. If the system is irrational, the decisions will be disordered.
6) Properly Calibrated. This encompasses the ‘punishment fits the crime’ dictum. If jaywalkers are given 10 years and thieves, 10 months, the system is not properly calibrated. But consideration of the effect on victims must be added into this equation. I occasionally hear people say they would give the death penalty to all child rapists or kidnappers. While sympathetic to the sentiment, it would only result in more child murders. Punishments must be calibrated to give victims the best chance of surviving a violent attack and rebuilding their lives.
7) Division of Authority. Even in the most noble of men, it would be a terrible error to allow him who brought charges to adjudicate the same charges. A noble prosecutor would not bring charges unless he thought them to be true. How then, could he judge of the same case with fresh, impartial eyes? This is only the most obvious instance of the need for division of authority. Men are also ambitious. When several centers of power are set up, some will abuse it, but others stand to gain power by exposing the abuse. Division of power minimizes unwitting bias and offers a powerful tool for both minimizing corruption and exposing it when it comes.
8) Subsidiarity. This is the principle that every public action should be handled at the lowest possible administrative level it can be. Thus, a national government should not decide which local roads a township will pave this summer. Let actions be performed by those who are closest to the need and most easily accountable to those affected by the actions. This creates obvious efficiency, but it also provides a check on overweening authority and a productive channel for ambitious talent to advance. The principle was stated as well as I have ever seen in St. John Paul’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus, which is also the best succinct framework for an effective government and economy I have ever read.
9) Correctable. The best-laid plans of men are flawed. Reasonable people know this. They do not demand that justice be perfect, but that where patterns of imperfection emerge, it can be quickly and effectively redressed.
You may wonder why I have covered something seemingly temporal like this. I have told you that soon you will have to form small communities of self-help. We are all fallible. There are ways that have worked to build up a society – which I call a reaching out to God – and ways that have a superficial appeal but have created disasters. We have lost sight of much of the underlying principles that allowed us to build a once-great culture. When one of these characteristics are absent, a society has a cold. Where three or more are absent, it is heading for deep, mortal trouble that will lead to social unrest, revolt or revolution if not corrected. I will touch on such principles regularly here for, soon, enough, you will be called to rebuild the culture one piece at a time in your little communities. I do this in hope that we may indeed become one people, under God, once more. We won’t get through the Storm until we have.