Support the rule of law

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed that it was arbitrariness, not necessarily severity, that distinguished totalitarian from law-abiding states. Stalin may have had his Gulags, Hitler his concentration camps, but the key to understanding the exercise of totalitarian power there and elsewhere lay in its capricious, unpredictable application, not its harshness. The operation of law is public, regular, knowable in advance. The eruption of the totalitarian impulse inserts a vertiginousness element of whim. That’s part of what makes it terrifying. In a free society governed by the rule of law, people know where they stand. In the normal course of affairs, most people will never directly experience the coercive power of the state. They are not subjected to harassment at the arbitrary direction of state officials. With the erosion of the habits of liberty, however, everything changes. Now the state tends to regard the people first of all not as its raison d’être but as a potential threat. The result is a sharp contraction of that latitude that free societies allow their citizens.

The tyranny of the law

Confronted with such a tight regulation, can man pretend to be free because the tyranny he is subjected to derives from the law? Of course, the legal power is not called ‘tyranny’ since it appears to be established by the general will in the common interest, and since, in any event, occurrences of arbitrary power are infrequent. But a master’s equity does not mean that his subjects are not slaves … And when their servitude lasts and their thoughts follow their behavior, the state becomes totalitarian and subjection is complete. Since it is legal servitude, the regime is still said to be democratic. Such is the hypocrisy of political language.

The mission of the law

The mission of the law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property, even though the law may be acting in a philanthropic spirit. Its purpose is to protect persons and property … If you exceed this proper limit — if you attempt to make the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic, industrial, or artistic — you will then be lost in uncharted territory, in vagueness and uncertainty, in a forced utopia or, even worse, in a multitude of utopias, each striving to seize the law and impose it on you.

The war on drugs

Thanks to the war on drugs, nearly 700,000 people were arrested in the United States for possession of marijuana in 1997, while 400,000 currently sit in prison for drug crimes — more than the entire prison population of Britain, Germany and Belgium — for what is a consensual act. Nearly $35 billion a year is spent on arresting, prosecuting and jailing drug criminals in the US — $400 million in Canada — to hammer at a crime which essentially harms no one but the drug user.

The effects of Prohibition

Alcohol didn’t cause the high crime rates of the ’20s and ’30s, Prohibition did. And drugs do not cause today’s alarming crime rates, but drug prohibition does … Trying to wage war on 23 million Americans who are obviously very committed to certain recreational activities is not going to be any more successful than Prohibition was.

Distinctions in society

Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society — the farmers, mechanics and laborers — who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government.