The Rule of BalanceIn the United States we are conditioned to think of the Rule of Law as being the best possible approach for a society. This sounds like a reasonable outlook since we are a society of immigrants, generally from regimes which abused power, both originally and ongoing. But it isn't always so reasonable. The Rule of Law only works when the law is appropriate to the actual situation. Consider the lawmakers who decreed that pi should be 3. That's not really appropriate unless perhaps you want to lessen the problems of school children who have to calculate the area of a circle. For a more recent example, there's the man who was arrested for piggybacking. He was parked outside a coffee shop and checking his email using their wireless internet. This is a felony in Massachusets. The coffee shop owners didn't want to press charges and the policeman had to go look up the statute before arresting him. Whether you think the man committed a crime, I'm pretty sure that you don't think he should have a felony record. (Don't go creating wild scenarios about what he was doing on the internet either; as far as I can tell, and certainly for the purpose of my argument, he was just checking mundane emails.) It is equally hard for us to see the virtues of the opposite of the Rule of Law. We don't have a good name for it, but lets call it the Rule of Authority. Think in terms of a council of elders of some tribe. There is the possibility of favoritism, but going beyond that, the Rule of Authority is the only way to take into account all the nuances of a situation. We've all heard of Solomon's decision in the baby case. That's an example of a good use of the Rule of Authority. Disputes between neighbors, situations where there's a lot of history and cases where one of the parties has a lot of money and the other has little are all good candidates for Rule of Authority. To take the last case, a human being has a better chance to discern whether the suits against the rich party are all just nuisance suits intended to get a piece of the pie. Both the Rule of Law and the Rule of Authority work in some cases and not in others. The system of jurisprudence in the United States actually attempts to strike a balance between law and authority. A human judge and jury are involved to temper the absolute stance taken by law and adjust to the nuances of the situation. More than that the enforcement arm, the police and prisons, also mitigate some of the harsher laws and rulings. So we come to the case of Paris Hilton. I truly believe that both the judge and the sheriff were trying to do their best for the unfortunate young woman. It looked like the judge was trying to create some consequences for someone who'd never had any. The sheriff, for his part, saw her vulnerability and chose to treat her much the same way he would any other prisoner charged with similar offenses. They were both right in my estimation. If she continues on this path, she could easily become a danger to herself and others. Do we really want a Paris Hilton equivalent to Neverland? Rest assured there will be further and harsher consequences if she continues. On the other hand our jails should not be the place for people who are mentally ill; that only drives them further down. I don't know the right answer for Paris Hilton. Her case may be beyond even Solomon. I do know that whenever we trust the machinery of law to do it all for us, to make fine discernments in complicated contexts, we give up something. The answer is not always more laws, or better laws, sometimes the answer is authority. And the answer is always balance.
11 Jun 2007
Copyright © 2007 Truck Smith