Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Laws We Can Agree With

The "Rule of Law" is always a tricky thing, because laws aren't really about preventing undesirable behavior. They're about providing a means for punishing people who are caught. So laws only "prevent" acts to the degree that people are willing to accept the fact that they should respect the law over acting on their inclinations.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an injunction against the Sea Shepherd conservation group, preventing them from interfering with Japanese whaling vessels. According to the BBC, Sea Shepherd is "questioning the legality of the ruling." It's a common pattern - groups expect legal victories to be binding and point to them as proof of the correctness of their cause, while legal setbacks are proclaimed legally suspect.

A pervasive sense that "Right makes Right" (the idea that the rightness of the ends confers the right to pursue whatever means are chosen) is at the heart of a number of different disputes and controversies. Take immigration into the United States from Latin America. Supporters of more open borders and of the mainly Hispanic undocumented immigrant community basically consider current United States laws on the subject illegitimate, and a lot of the rhetoric around immigration reform from such activists basically calls for either changing the laws to something that current and future migrants can accept, or simply ignoring them.

As it is with a lot of things, however, it is perhaps national governments that are the biggest perpetrators of this - being quick to point out areas where unfriendly governments are in breach of international law, yet never seeming to find their way to accepting that laws should sometimes have adverse consequences for their own ambitions. The United States, while far from the only culprit in such matters, is often conspicuous in its habit of counting as legitimate laws that apply to nations Washington dislikes at the moment while ignoring or protesting those that are inconvenient for itself or its allies.

We don't yet have a way of making a system where individual people, organizations and governments can pick and chose which rules apply to them workable on a larger scale. Until we come up with one we should have a greater expectation that groups we support should either live with the rules as they are written, or go through the process of changing them.

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