What’s Wrong With Breaking The Law?

The political superstar of movement libertarianism writes:

We must reject amnesty for illegal immigrants in any form. We cannot continue to reward lawbreakers and expect things to get better. If we reward millions who came here illegally, surely millions more will follow suit. Ten years from now we will be in the same position, with a whole new generation of lawbreakers seeking amnesty.

Memo To Ron Paul,

You bandy about the words “illegal” and “lawbreaker” as if they had moral content. They don’t.

Weren’t Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and all the founding fathers lawbreakers? Wasn’t Thoreau? Or Martin Luther King?

Wasn’t the Declaration of Independence itself an act of lawbreaking?

Men have no moral obligation whatsoever to obey or even recognize immoral laws, including many immoral laws that you are party to. Stop using law as a proxy for morality in your arguments. There is no necessary relationship between the two.


Update: Billy Beck recommends Kyle Bennett’s critique of this post. I respond in comments at Bennett’s post.

46 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Breaking The Law?”

  1. “Wasn’t the Declaration of Independence itself an act of lawbreaking?”

    Well, if you take the Declaration at its own word (as I think you should), it wasn’t so much an act of breaking the law as an act of recognizing that the so-called “law” was no law at all, because it was without legitimate authority. Rather than breaking the law, it refused, and therefore dissolved, any obligation to respect the claims of legal authority over the American states at all; but folks with no legal authority can’t make law, so there was no law to break.

    But, since the United States government hasn’t got any more legitimate authority over peaceful immigrants on private property than the King of England had over Americans minding their own business, the status of illegal immigrants is really much the same as that of those who signed the declaration, anyway.

    Of course, for Ron Paul to recognize that, he would have to give up his job as a professional usurper, and start looking for an honest line of work. So I’m not holding my breath.

  2. I don’t say he has to quit his job. Just as anyone may justifiably vote defensively he could in theory justifiably vote defensively in congress.

    But here he clearly promotes moral crimes.

  3. Well, the issue isn’t whether or not Ron Paul would have to stop sitting in the House of Representatives. I agree that he isn’t necessarily under a moral obligation to do so. But he would have to stop trying to pass off himself and his colleaguesas legislators invested with the right to make laws wholly of their own device. As it stands he’s a professional usurper because whatever votes he makes in practice, he professionally claims an authority that he has not got.

    Also, I doubt that he would have any right to accept a Congressional salary and benefits for his “services,” even if he were holding the position in a strictly defensive way (which of course he’s not).

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  5. Do you think that he has a right to accept money or benefits above the total amount he paid out in taxes before he became a government employee? Or are the reasons that it would be legitimate other than whatever compensation the government owes him for taxes extorted?

  6. Do you think that he has a right to accept money or benefits above the total amount he paid out in taxes before he became a government employee?

    I would say so. Tax money already collected isn’t going to get returned to its owners, and paying congressmen is probably not the most malign use that could be made of it.

  7. I don’t think that the current distribution of government funds is completely irrelevant to libertarians however. For example, Kevin Carson has proposed that lowering corporate welfare from the top down and lowering income taxes from the bottom up is more just than the reverse on the grounds that corporations have received most of the benefits from present and past statist aggression. Whether this is true or not, the point is that there are several ways to roll back government, and some are a lot messier than others.

  8. Kennedy: He can morally take as much of the stolen loot as he wants. What else should be done with it? The original rights to the loot are unsalvageable.

    How so? Money’s fungible. It seems as though it would be pretty trivial for him to find net tax payers that he could return it to.

  9. If you’re bankrupt, there’s no just way to pay off all of your creditors, since at least some debts are going to get defaulted on. That doesn’t mean that you’re not obliged to do what you can towards paying off at least some of them.

  10. Rad,

    “Because it was taken from them.”

    Was it? From whom? If you give $100 of the loot to you next door neighbor A, a net-taxpayer, why can’t the next net-taxpayer B say it’s his money and recover it from A?

  11. John,

    B can’t recover it from A because once recovered by A, it belongs to her.

    This is no different from any other situation in which assets on hand aren’t sufficient to cover all the debts that are out.

    If I take out $100,000 in loans each from A and B and then default, but I can only pay back $20,000, then there’s no way for me to pay back everything I owe. But if I pay back $20,000 to A and nothing to B, B has no right to take the $20,000 from A on the grounds that it’s really her money.

    Similarly, if I steal $1,000 from you and another $1,000 from Lopez, then blow $1,500 in Vegas before you catch me, you’re still entitled to recover $500 from me. You’re not obliged to turn over all of it, or part of it, to Lopez, and he’s not entitled to take it from you.

  12. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t see how the principles of restitution you’ve outlined follow from first principles, nor how they are directly relevant to Ron Paul’s position. For one thing, it would seem to follow from your logic that a net-taxpayer could receive money via “repayment” and then pay Ron Paul, a net tax-recipient, with the money. It would then be his, no? And why does restitution get metted out on a first-come first-served basis? This is a fungible good we’re talking about. It seems that in an anarcho-capitalist society both Kennedy and Lopez would have a claim on that $500, and that some kind of arbitration would be in order.

  13. Kennedy:

    Assuming Paul has only acted justly, defensively, he doesn’t owe you anything.

    That’s begging the question. The claim is that he can’t act justly while taking money that belongs to other people, so if he does keep it, then he owes a debt of compensation to the victims.

    He cannot steal from the state and he’s not responsible to secure any of your rights.

    He can’t steal from the state, but he can and does accept stolen goods from it. You can homestead unclaimed property, but not claimed property that happens to be inaccessible to the claimant due only the actions of criminal conspirators with your co-operation. (This isn’t like finding buried treasure, after all; the victims are identifiable and the piracy is extensively documented.)

    If you think the property is unclaimed by net taxpayers, well, here: I want mine back.

    Stefan:

    For one thing, it would seem to follow from your logic that a net-taxpayer could receive money via “repayment” and then pay Ron Paul, a net tax-recipient, with the money. It would then be his, no?

    Sure, if they wanted to voluntarily contribute to his upkeep. I wouldn’t, personally, since I think Ron Paul’s presence in a single seat in Congress is perfectly useless as a defensive measure. But to each her own.

    In fact, Ron Paul could even deliberately choose to “repay” net tax-payers who would then kick back the money to him, as long as he didn’t pay them over what they were owed, on net, by the Treasury. I think that would be morally sketchy, but it would arguably be a vice rather than a crime.

    And why does restitution get metted out on a first-come first-served basis? This is a fungible good we’re talking about. It seems that in an anarcho-capitalist society both Kennedy and Lopez would have a claim on that $500, and that some kind of arbitration would be in order.

    I would hold that because it is a fungible good, the $500 is available for something analogous to homesteading by whichever of my victims can recover it. (After all, what matters is getting the amount back, not getting back the specific dollars I stole, so it doesn’t matter whether those $500 were originally Kennedy’s, Lopez’s, the casino’s, or mine.)

    It may be prudential for Kennedy and Lopez to work out some agreement via arbitration and then pool their resources for recovery. But from the standpoint of justice I owe both Lopez and Kennedy $1,000, but without some kind of contractual agreement neither Kennedy nor Lopez owes the other aid in recovering his share of the money. So if Kennedy gets $500 of his money back before Lopez can get to it, Lopez only has a claim against me, not against Kennedy.

    My problem with the Bizarro Ron Paul who actually votes in accord with perfect justice is that he has no claim to the money he’s taking as salary in the first place, so he’s not eligible to recover it or to homestead it.

    Macker:

    Oh, come on, surely you excommunicated him from libertarianism long ago for ….. holding public office.

    I think both Kennedy and I made it pretty clear that the problem isn’t that he holds public office. It’s that he’s a statist.

  14. Rad,

    Doesn’t it follow from your argument that you’d be justified in recovering your property from any welfare recipient, for instance, who received benefits in excess of what he’d paid into the system since he was receiving stolen goods?

  15. Kennedy,

    Doesn’t it follow from your argument that you’d be justified in recovering your property from any welfare recipient, for instance, who received benefits in excess of what he’d paid into the system since he was receiving stolen goods?

    I don’t know. I also don’t know whether it would make it unjust for other employees at 100% tax-funded institutions (government school teachers, EPA bureaucrats, contractors on government buildings, or whatever you like) to accept their salaries. As a practical matter, I’m not worried very much about welfare recipients (since I think all or nearly all of them are arguably net taxpayers, not net tax recipients, once all taxes, indirect taxes, and compliance costs for getting the benefits are factored in), but there are other cases where practical worries are raised, and it’s an important theoretical question regardless of practical import. I have to admit that I have conflicting intuitions, so this is more a matter of doubting the legitimacy of taking a Congressional salary than it is positively denying it, until I have a better idea of how to sort it out.

    As I see it, there are three viable options:

    1. Net tax-recipients can lay claim to the loot as lost property, no matter how they acquire it; as long as they played no active role in the process of expropriating it, the victims’ claims are only against the expropriators, not against those who received it. (Thus, accepting a Congressional salary and accepting a government school salary are equally just, even above the total debt of the Treasury to you.)

    2. Net tax-recipients can’t lay claim to the loot, no matter how they acquire it, since it is owned property; even if they played no active role in expropriating it, laying claim to it rather than returning it to its owners makes one an accessory to theft. (Thus, neither acceping a Congressional salary nor accepting a government school salary would be just, once you’d already made back whatever the government owes you in taxes.)

    3. Net tax-recipients can sometimes lay claim, and sometimes they can’t, depending on how they acquire it; this would need to involve some kind of distinction between loot paid out for some purposes (say, Congressional salary) and loot paid out for others (say, government school salary). This would have to make the fact that even a legislator who happens to vote in accord with perfect justice is still being paid for a job description that involves criminal usurpation, whereas a government school-teacher (say) is not.

    I lean towards (3), and if not (3) then I’m undecided between (1) and (2). I understand (1) to be your position; please correct me if I’m wrong. (3) would be an eirenic solution, but I’m not sure whether this distinction can actually do the work that it needs to do to justify it. In any case, I think the issue is tricky, simply because the moral law around conspiracies and accessory is tricky.

    There are also, actually, difficulties with immediately translating the injustice of accepting loot from a particular class of individuals, into a right of recovery by any member of that class against particular recipients (it may be that it’s unjust for Bizarro Ron Paul to take the salary, but that no particular net tax recipient has a right to recover from him in particular; if so, then he’d be obligated to turn it over but the obligation wouldn’t be legitimately enforceable). But this is already running too long.

    Just out of curiosity, do you think that your argument applies in all cases of receiving stolen property? I.e., are there any cases where you consider it a moral crime to receive property you know to have been stolen from one or more identifiable victims?

  16. I think there is something to be said for not allowing liberty to be swamped under by non-liberty minded folks. That’s not an indictment of all immigrants, but many don’t care a lick about liberty, freedom, etc., and would as soon vote for full blown socialism to handcuff us further given the state of the nations from which they run.

    It’d be one thing if our nation was the nation of 1815, where basically the economic laws of gravity associated with liberty and freedom pretty much forced you to behave in a liberty oriented fashion in the U.S.

    Today, however, with hundreds of billions of dollars of freebie entitlements which, when added to the balance sheet in their net present value form, drive the federal deficit to an absurd $3.5 trillion… hell… its a matter of picking your poison. Granted, at this point, what are a few more immigrants going to do? Although, just the same, do you want our government to look more like Mexico’s government (or any other foreign nations) by voters driving it that direction at even a faster pace that it is already slouching?

    I don’t know. If we had a clean slate, with small government, I’d not care much myself. As it stands, we’ve already slipped from the land of the free to the freest of lands. Do we really want to drive it that way, and faster?

    I’m torn.

  17. I.e., are there any cases where you consider it a moral crime to receive property you know to have been stolen from one or more identifiable victims?

    My intuition, for what it’s worth, is that if you are aware of the rightful owner then it’s immoral to keep the item but not necessarily unjust. However I think it would be just for the victim to recover the item forcibly from you. I have a hunch there is a hidden assumption I can’t determine which allows these contradictory intuitions to live together; or else my intuition is wrong.

  18. Not sure why this post cites Thoreau as breaking the law. He refused to pay a bit of tax money, so it is claimed, and went to jail for a day. He made his point. The govt made theirs. Since that time, the govt figured out how to take care of such people: it takes the tax money out in advance of tax due day. Thoreau thought he would not support the govt via tax money because of the slave issue and the Mexican war. Ok. But if you do not believe in Iraq war, then refuse to pay taxes…

  19. Not sure why this post cites Thoreau as breaking the law. He refused to pay a bit of tax money, so it is claimed, and went to jail for a day.

    Thus he was a lawbreaker. What’s confusing about it?

  20. J.C. Earnharth: I think there is something to be said for not allowing liberty to be swamped under by non-liberty minded folks.

    1. Are you suggesting that the government has the right to use force against immigrants on the basis of their political opinions? Or, worse, on the basis of political opinions they may not even hold but happen to be held by a lot of people from their former home?

    2. The post is about whether immigration without a government permission slip ought to be treated as criminal. Do you seriously think that liberty is going to be enhanced by condemning immigrants who don’t notify the government of their whereabouts and intentions at all times, and praising those who patiently trudge through years of pointless paperwork?

    J.C. Earnharth: It’d be one thing if our nation was the nation of 1815, where basically the economic laws of gravity associated with liberty and freedom pretty much forced you to behave in a liberty oriented fashion in the U.S.

    Yeah, unless you were a white planter in the South. Then there was that little slavery and ethnic cleansing thing.

    But hey, who’s counting?

  21. The problem here is that the Machinery of Government gains strength as a function of the rate at which stolen goods flow through it. Every dollar either Ron Paul or the public school teacher collects from the State grants more power and authority to both the the theft bureaucracies [the IRS, etc.] and the loot distribution bureaucracies [the Congress as a whole, the Dept. of Education, etc.]

    We are responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions. Doing business of any sort with the State, our enemy, makes it stronger and materially increases its ability to rob and bully others. I would therefore argue that we have a moral obligation to reduce our interaction with the State as much as possible. This includes paying as little taxes as will keep us out of jail, not selling goods or services to the government, not drawing a government paycheck, not voting, showing contempt for regulations, etc.

  22. We are responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions. Doing business of any sort with the State, our enemy, makes it stronger and materially increases its ability to rob and bully others. I would therefore argue that we have a moral obligation to reduce our interaction with the State as much as possible.

    I’m sure there is an obligation like that, but why would it necessarily outweigh the good of drawing a government paycheck, or voting defensively, etc? A few libertarians “withdrawing” from the state won’t make an iota of difference, so I don’t really see the great moral advantage of it.

  23. Shouldn’t withdrawing from the state make a marginal difference? The State will have slightly fewer resources every time someone gets out of the system. Maybe they’ll be one fewer IRS agent hired that year, and as a result somebody won’t get hassled as much. Maybe some bureaucracy’s budget will be smaller. If nothing else the guys who withdraw from the state might have more money as a result of having less of it stolen. (Drawing a government paycheck is its own punishment.)

    It’s like helping one Jew escape from Auschwitz. It won’t put an end to the Holocaust, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

  24. f nothing else the guys who withdraw from the state might have more money as a result of having less of it stolen. (Drawing a government paycheck is its own punishment.)

    That’s probably the sentiment I agree with the most; government paychecks are not immoral in my view, but they can be inferior to what one could draw in the private sector.

    It’s like helping one Jew escape from Auschwitz. It won’t put an end to the Holocaust, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

    The analogy would work, except to me it seems a better analogy to what you’re saying would be helping a Jew escape from Auschwitz because you want to stop the holocaust. Even if it contributed very little (or somehow even encouraged) the holocaust to continue, I would still rescue an individual Jew because that seems right to me. But I’m just not seeing the moral obligation you say that we have not to engage with the state. As I have said even if a bunch of people “withdraw” from the state it won’t make much difference at all. The state is not some alien or monster that will magically go away.

    Wouldn’t it be better, say, to work for the state and do a lot of good in whatever your job is than to not work for the state and do little good? I realize these aren’t the only options, but I’m not convinced that some couldn’t do more good working for the state than not doing so, and hence I can’t see that the moral obligation you posit exists.

  25. >>Wouldn’t it be better, say, to work for the state and do a lot of good in whatever your job is than to not work for the state and do little good?

    Working for the State differs primarily from supporting one’s hobby by robbing people at gunpoint in that the latter is more honest. When one works for the State one has basically outsourced all the robbing necessary to support one’s operations to a larger “coercion provider.”

    Now, if you can imagine a task so important that you could justify personally robbing people at gunpoint to make it happen, then performing that duty under the auspices of the State might make ethical (and practical) sense. Even in this case, the considerable inefficiencies associated with operating within the State bureaucracy might still make freelance robbery more efficient. Some work done by the CDC might qualify as being ethical in spite of the robbery.

    >>The analogy would work, except to me it seems a better analogy to what you’re saying would be helping a Jew escape from Auschwitz because you want to stop the holocaust.

    The holocaust consisted of 11 million individual murders. Preventing just one of those murders stops the holocaust FOR THAT INDIVIDUAL. Similarly, the State consists of a large number of discrete criminal actions. If by partially (or totally) withdrawing my support from the State I can decrease the number of such crimes, I am morally obligated to do so. Note that stupidly provoking the State through brazen defiance might easily increse the number and severity of such crimes — I’m under no moral obligation to do such things.

  26. Working for the State differs primarily from supporting one’s hobby by robbing people at gunpoint in that the latter is more honest.

    It’s possible, but the link seems kind of tenuous. For example, if two men conspire to rob me but only one actually holds the gun, then it is clear to me the other one is guilty of aiding the crime. But do the mothers of the two gentlemen also “aid” the crime? It seems like only people directly aiding or indirectly cooperating to bring about the crime are guilty. For example, I could see security guards and congressmen as both equally guilty for carrying out some particular government malfeasance. But I can’t see how postal workers are to blame for taxation.

  27. T.J. Madison: If by partially (or totally) withdrawing my support from the State I can decrease the number of such crimes, …

    But T.J., you can’t.

    If Ron Paul resigned tomorrow, his seat would promptly be filled. Outside the military, the government is not facing any kind of staffing shortage; every resignation or refusal means nothing more than that the seat will be filled by somebody else. Speaking strictly from the standpoint of consequentialist calculation, your personal refusal to fill any given government post, or to accept any particular salary from the government, is completely irrelevant, either on the whole or on the margin, to the prospects for the government’s ongoing cannibal feast.

    I do think that there may be moral problems with accepting a government salary. But if there are any such problems, the reasons for them have nothing in particular to do with its practical effects.

  28. Rad Geek,

    how do you square the “moral problems” of accepting a government salary with your obvious respect for the institution of the modern university?

  29. Rad Geek,

    Outside the military, the government is not facing any kind of staffing shortage; every resignation or refusal means nothing more than that the seat will be filled by somebody else.

    That’s not necessarily true, and it is a rather simplistic view. A top-notch physicist cannot be replaced easily, and if the Manhattan Project scientists had had a conscience, the government would have had a very hard time replacing them, and a few more Japanese would be eating sushi with their grandchildren today.

  30. Stefan,

    Well, as I mentioned above, I don’t have a decisive opinion on the moral status of accepting a tax-funded salary; all I’m saying is that if there’s a moral problem, it has to do with the requirements of justice on your individual conduct, not with the sort of consequentialist calculation that was being suggested. I’m not positive that there is a moral problem.

    As for Universities, I’m not sure precisely what question you’re asking. If you’re asking about the payments that governments make to some Universities at an institutional level, then it may well be true that justice obliges University administrators not to profit from the looting. Whether or not this is an obligation of justice, I think it would be wise not to lay claim to the loot: government money means government control, and the freer that Universities are from political power, the better. (Autonomy from political power is historically one of the most important values of the University; when Universities are reduced to branches of the civil service it debases them and undermines their purpose.)

    If, on the other hand, you’re asking about salaries for faculty or staff at government Universities, I’m not worried much about that at all. The reason being that the money for those salaries isn’t solely tax loot. Some Universities are tax-funded but all are at least partly funded by voluntary contributions and fees from individual students. So what you’ve got here is accepting a salary from a tax-subsidized institution, rather than accepting a tax-funded salary. (The same would apply to, say, employees of firms that benefit from corporate welfare.) Now, you could argue that, if you accept position (2) as I outlined above (that nobody has a right to any tax-funded salary or benefits), then a professor would be morally obliged to return to net tax-payers whatever portion her salary comes from tax funds. But how could you calculate the portions, even in principle? The cases that worry me, and which push me towards position (3), are different ones, in which people are doing similar kinds of work but receiving a 100% tax-funded salary (e.g. teachers in K-12 government schools).

    Ryan,

    Granted: if you have unique skills to contribute (or not to contribute) to a position that’s especially demanding of them, then your co-operation or refual to co-operate with the government may make some concrete difference on the margin. Being in that position may create some special obligations for you, if your co-operation will make crimes possible that would otherwise not be possible. But this is not the position that most people on the government payroll are in, and it’s not the position that Ron Paul in particular or anybody else in the United States Congress is in. If Ron Paul resigns tomorrow, he will be replaced; and even if he were never replaced it would make absolutely no difference to the prospects of the U.S. Congress (plenty of seats have been vacant for various lengths of time). Whatever moral obligations Ron Paul has, as far as his seat and his salary are concerned, they have very little to do with the (effectively nonexistent) power that he has to sway the course of the federal government one way or another by those sorts of actions.

  31. So what you’ve got here is accepting a salary from a tax-subsidized institution, rather than accepting a tax-funded salary.

    Hmm, so perhaps this is some sort of continuum problem, with 100% tax funding and 100% injustice at one end and completely private, completely just funding on the other? Because I can’t really see much distinction, like you suggest, between people doing identical work yet one works at an institution with a greater percentage of government funding.

  32. Rad,

    1. Net tax-recipients can lay claim to the loot as lost property, no matter how they acquire it; as long as they played no active role in the process of expropriating it, the victims’ claims are only against the expropriators, not against those who received it. (Thus, accepting a Congressional salary and accepting a government school salary are equally just, even above the total debt of the Treasury to you.)

    Anyone can take the loot. The crime was in the taking.

    Just out of curiosity, do you think that your argument applies in all cases of receiving stolen property?

    No, my argument is appropriate to state loot. In other cases property rights are often salvageable.

  33. Kennedy,

    If I steal $1,000 each from you, Lopez, Lynette, and Sabotta, throw it all into a bag and shake it around, and then blow $1,500 at the casino, are the property rights for the remaining $2,500 completely unsalvageable? Can anyone at all lay claim to the remaining loot?

  34. We each are entitled to recover money from *you*. But if Hoppe takes $2500 from you do I have any more legitimate a claim against him than against the casino?

    Seems to me *you* owe us $4K regardless of what anyone else does.

  35. Can anyone at all lay claim to the remaining loot?

    Kennedy says that any of the four victims can lay claim to the remaining loot. If it doesn’t become “theirs” at that point, then how is anybody ever going to lay claim to any of the hypothetical $4,000 at all? A similar example for a non-fungible good might be if you stole 4 identical clocks from 4 people, then disassembled and then reassembled them with parts from each other, and then destroyed one clock. Who then has a “right” to any of the remaining 3 clocks? Why shouldn’t it be first-come first-serve?

  36. Kennedy: We each are entitled to recover money from *you*. But if Hoppe takes $2500 from you do I have any more legitimate a claim against him than against the casino?

    I don’t know. Sometimes people who accept stolen goods certainly are obligated to return them to the owners. Sometimes they aren’t. The question is which category this case falls under. Does Hoppe know where the money comes from? And what’s he accepting the money for? It seems like both of these may be relevant to whether or not the act of accepting it makes him an accessory to the theft or not.

    Stefan: Who then has a ‘right’ to any of the remaining 3 clocks? Why shouldn’t it be first-come first-serve?”

    I think it should unless the claimaints make some kind of contractual agreement with each other to the contrary, and I mentioned this above. My question for Kennedy is whether, in each given case, anybody at all can lay claim on a first-come first-serve basis, or whether the class of people who can lay claim on a first-come first-serve basis is limited to the people from whom the loot was taken in the first place.

  37. I’m a little uncomfortable with that limitation Rad Geek; it seems to imply it would be just for net tax recipients to mug Hoppe as he’s coming home from work.

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