My way or my way

I recently participated in an online debate that took an interesting turn. The more I think about it, however, and the more I that same philosophy espoused and embraced at all levels of power and among all ideologies, the more concerned I have become.

The conversation centered around a particular law that is unpopular with a lot of people. One participant took the side that because he felt the law was unfair no one should be under any obligation to obey that law. While I can certainly understand the sentiment, it does nothing to encourage a solution. On the contrary, it makes a solution increasingly unlikely.

Look at it this way. You and a stranger walk into a bakery, intent on buying a cheesecake. Unfortunately, there is only one piece left. You both want it. Neither of you are willing to relinquish your claim on the cheesecake. After a moment of intense but unsuccessful debate you decide there has to be a better way. You offer to compromise with the other person. Perhaps you can split the cake and each at least get half. Surely that is better than nothing, right?

The stranger just laughs and says, “Sure, I’ll compromise. But I’m not leaving here with less than the entire cheesecake.” And to make his point he gets a very firm grip on the plate the cake comes on.

You decide to try anyway. “How about we split this down the center,” you offer.

“Okay,” replies the stranger, but he does not let go.

“Let go, please,” you say. “I want my half.”

“No,” says the stranger. “I told you, I want the entire cheesecake. The agreement we just made doesn’t achieve that.”

“But you agreed to a compromise.”

“Yes, but I will only agree to a compromise in which I get the entire cake. Anything less and I won’t let go.”

“How about if I draw the line a little farther over so you get the bigger piece?”

“Okay,” says the stranger. But he doesn’t let go.

After a few more tries of offering increasingly larger shares to the stranger he still won’t let go, though he agrees to every compromise. You quickly realize that even negotiating is pointless. He won’t budge, and your willingness to keep trying is only resulting in less and less cake for you–in fact none, since he won’t let go.

That’s the result of an “I don’t care if it’s the law, the law is bad and I won’t obey it” approach. You leave no option to the other side but to hang on to their end just as stubbornly, because giving even an inch is pointless if the other side has no intention of abiding by a compromise. Now we have a situation where no one gets even a fraction of what they want. Nothing improves. Nothing changes. One side has the law on their side, and the other just does what they want. Eventually the other side will catch on to this tactic and use it in the other direction. Soon everything is deadlocked. Nothing changes. Nothing improves.

An all-or-nothing approach to society sooner or later will destroy that society. If the law becomes meaningless and people are disinclined to obey the law then the law must either be enforced, brutally if necessary, or it needs to be tossed out. In either case society will not hold together for long. Once people feel the laws become meaningless they will withdraw. Do you think what happened in the Balkans can’t happen here? You are hopelessly naive. The most we could hope for is a semi-peaceful, voluntary redistribution of population to the emerging fracture-states that best represent their ideals. I’m afraid I can’t be that optimistic. There would be blood.

For society to function the vast majority need to be willing to uphold the laws, even if they don’t agree with all of them. The moment civic obedience becomes a la carte, society ceases to function.

In another recent debate someone suggested that not only is the Pledge of Allegience obsolete, but that we shouldn’t have to pledge our loyalty to our country. I could not get this person to see that loyalty is the price we pay for a functional society, whether we formally pledge it or not. The moment we feel that our loyalty to the larger ideal of “our country” is optional is the beginning of the decline of that country. The moment we feel our individual wants outweigh the good of the majority the seeds are sown for the fragmentation of society. If that society or country is truly repressive then it might not be a bad thing. However, dismantling one of the most free, tolerant, and fair countries in the world simply because you don’t want to be inconvenienced by a few laws you don’t like is much akin to killing the golden goose. Chances are what you end up with will be neither free, fair, or tolerant. You’ll have burned down the bakery simply because you couldn’t get key lime pie that day.

I’m doubtful the person who argued for disobeying “immoral” laws thinks he’s becoming an anarchist. I doubt he thinks ignoring the law “just this once” is going to destroy society. But he’s wrong. Maybe he only intends to ignore the one law, but his example will encourage others to ignore a myriad of laws, many of which he will have supported. No one person making a principled stand will bring down the country, but enough people following that example with their own pet issues will tear apart society piece by piece.

Again, I hope this is just me being paranoid. But history provides at least some evidence that I’m not. We would do well to think this through.

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