Pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.— Prof. Steven Landsburg

Once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the various hapax legomena, a solid 50% English content!—The Proprietor

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

An Unwelcome Privilege

unbalanced scales

The existence of an effective, binding, civil justice system has two implications for you. The first of these is that, should somebody legally wrong you, you can sue them. The second is that, should you legally wrong somebody, they can sue you. This is often thought of as a cost-benefit balance. The capacity to sue is great, but being sued can be unpleasant. You take the bitter with the sweet, because on balance the latter outweighs the former.

That is incorrect. For both of these implications are benefits to you and, for most people, most of the time, the capacity to be sued is a far greater benefit than the capacity to sue.

To see why, imagine that a genie had forevermore liberated you from the threat of suit—no matter what you do, nobody can bring a civil suit against you—while retaining your ability to sue those who wrong you completely unimpaired.

You might think that this was a great gift. However, as soon as you tried anything common people do every day—e.g., opening a credit card account; buying a house with a mortgage—you'd find yourself unable to procure a bank’s services. For why would a bank lend you money, even temporarily, even if you sincerely assured them of your intention to repay them, if as soon as the mood struck you could just walk away from the obligation without legal consequence? No matter how sincere your promises to the contrary were, nobody would be able to trust you.

Then, imagine that the genie had gone further and freed you even from the constraints of criminal law. No court could convict you of any crime.

You’d find the consequences of such privilege even worse. For strangers whom previously you interacted with cordially and cooperatively would—as soon as they became aware of your privilege—run away from any interaction with you. You may know in your heart that your nature is kindly and pacific. But nobody else can know that. All they would know is that you can rob, rape, and murder them at will.

The privilege of being above the law is not one to be wished for.

As for people, so with nations too. The proud assertions of national sovereignty and refusal to submit to courts, such as those emitted recently by Argentina or Greece, if acted upon, will not lead to pride and prosperity, but penury. A sovereign that can give a credible impression of being bound by law will often find a far broader scope of cooperative action than one who claims to be above it.