The jails are full of people who broke small laws. So it isn't difficult to fill up the jails, these days.

But suppose an unjust law is rarely enforced in your area -- what do you do then?

I imagine the answer would be to disobey it and say nothing. That's the simple thing. But there's always the possibility that someone will come along and arrest you for breaking the law. 

To give you an example, say your bar is required to sell Miller Lite. This is the subject of As A Capitalist, I Am Enraged. Now, how does anyone enforce this rule? Do they check the owner's purchase records to make sure he's ordering Miller Lite, or do they send around an inspector? "Let's see, you have Pabst Blue Ribbon, and various local brews -- but no Miller Lite! TO THE STOCKS WITH HIM!"

If nobody enforces the rule, the owner could stop selling Miller Lite and see who complains. Selling in proportion to demand is perfectly Capitalist. If there's no demand, there's no problem.

Or he could buy a twelve-pack, sell it quickly, and then say with complete honesty that he's fresh out. I'm guessing the law doesn't state how much Miller Lite he has to offer.

But some people follow all laws, even the ones that are rarely enforced, and they do it not because the live in fear of the enforcers -- it's because they actually agree with the laws. Many of them were acting as they did before any such laws were put in place. Should the government vanish or be replaced, they will act as they always have. 

And these people are all of us, to some degree, because we are driven by our likes and dislikes and our conscience, not by law. Those of us who have no career in law don't think about it all the time; we don't judge the legality of every single thing we do, or even most things. And most of what we do is perfectly legal. Right? Surely the law hasn't reached into every single little thing we do?

I don't know. I haven't checked all the laws. Nobody knows all the laws. Mostly we get by with checking the parts of the law that pertain to what we're doing -- but we shouldn't have to do that all the time.

When the law starts to clash with things we thought were perfectly innocuous -- things like connecting to an unsecured wi-fi network, or singing "happy birthday" in public -- that's when we have to ask ourselves, which is more important? The law, or conscience? Because it seems like the law is proscribing things beyond what seems necessary. Not everything is a moral decision; some things do not involve the choice between wrong and right.

It becomes more problematic when you realize that conscience and morality are not flawless. Sometimes a law makes perfect sense even if you can't see why -- many of the dumber laws on the books were written when they pertained to serious issues. For instance, there's a rule in Oregon, I believe, that requires beasts of burden to wear diapers in certain watershed areas. This is because back when every cart had its beast of burden, the amount of dung in the rivers would have caused serious contamination.

In which case, the flouting of a stupid (or seemingly stupid) rule is one that requires careful consideration, because said rule could have been written with the best of intentions. Such is the case with most of the anti-drug laws. 

By the same token, the best of intentions does not guarantee the justification of a law. It is, after all, written by human beings. So the law could make perfect sense to the person writing it, and little sense to anyone else.

And there is the problem of enforcement -- how much is too much? If you ask the police and the courts and the judge and the local/state/federal government, they'll probably tell you that we don't have enough yet. So they call in the SWAT team and break down your door and pile on top of you for...what turns out to be three ounces of marijuana. This happens. 

Maybe the SWAT team likes to feel useful, and powerful. Definitely powerful. They were in a parade in my hometown once, and I learned later that their weapons were loaded.

And I think they don't reimburse you for the broken door, either.

There are numerous laws written with the best of intent, and there also numerous laws written in order to be Tough On Crime. Crime apparently including grafitti. Certan cities make it illegal to carry broad-tipped markers and sundry wall-marking material in a public space. That means that between the store and your car, you're in a public space and you're breaking the law. No recourse. And you better hope the judge doesn't believe in Zero Tolerance, because Zero Tolerance policies are specifically designed to remove human judgement from the sentencing, in order to scare people into obedience. The judge might as well not be there.

No mercy. No humanity.

In which case, the case for civil diobedience is stronger and clearer. Carry bags full of markers. Sing "happy birthday" in public at the top of your lungs. Break all of the stupid little rules, if you have the time. Make it clear that you're trying to fill up the jails.

We should not have to wonder each day if our actions are illegal. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi notes that Iranian women are kept in line by this fear -- it prevented them from thinking of the bigger questions, like why they were forced to dress conservatively in the first place.

In some places, there may be enough laws on the books that everything we do is illegal, which means that the police can pick us up for anything anytime, only needing to charge us with "antisocial behavior" or "disturbing the peace", which could easily be redefined to "anything I don't like."

We are citizens of the world that calls itself free, and it appears that we have ended up in the same place as the Iranians. Unless we can rely on the apathy of the police, which isn’t guaranteed. Sometimes you get a rookie cop who feels he has to enforce every little law; sometimes you get a cop who likes to feel powerful.

So I’ve explored the question without ever adequately answering it: What do you do if an unjust law is rarely enforced? Do you live in fear of the law, and obey the rule, or do you ignore it and take your chances?



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