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Locke On The Benefits Of An Honest Society

February 15, 2010

Much of my personal motivation for letting new nations bloom is the desire to live in a society whose rules are aligned with my morality.  I have an intuition that our enormous mismatch between morality and legality is a bad thing, that it causes moral rot and corruption and makes for an unhealthy culture.  I am used to thinking of law-breaking as a good thing, because I disagree with the majority of laws, but wouldn’t it be far better to live in a world where every person didn’t need to find their own internal moral compass?

This is fuzzy and hard to quantify, and because I have no experience with a moral society, it is hard to be sure whether my intuition is right.  But John Locke seems to agree with me.  In his piece Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and the Raising the Value of Money, he says:

I fear I may reckon it as one of the probable Consequences of such a Law, That it is likely to cause great Perjury in the Nation; a Crime, than which nothing is more carefully to be prevented by Lawmakers, not only by Penalties, that shall attend apparent and proved Perjury; but by avoiding and lessening, as much as may be, the Temptations to it. For where those are strong, (as they are where Men shall Swear for their own Advantage) there the fear of Penalties to follow will have little Restraint; especially if the Crime be hard to be proved.All which I suppose will happen in this Case, where ways will be found out to receive Money upon other Pretences than for Use, to evade the Rule and Rigour of the Law: And there will be secret Trusts and Collusions amongst Men, that though they may be suspected, can never be proved without their own Confession.

I have heard very sober and observing Persons complain of the Danger Mens Lives and Properties are in, by the frequency and fashionableness of Perjury amongst us. Faith and Truth, especially in all Occasions of attesting it upon the solemn Appeal to Heaven by an Oath, is the great Bond of Society: This it becomes the Wisdom of Magistrates carefully to support, and render as sacred and awful in the Minds of the People as they can. But if ever Frequency of Oaths shall make them be looked on as Formalities of Law, or the Custom of straining of Truth (which Mens Swearing in their own Cases is apt to lead them to) has once dipt Men in Perjury, and the Guilt with the Temptation has spread it self very wide, and made it almost fashionable in some Cases, it will be impossible for the Society (these Bonds being dissolved) to subsist: All must break in Pieces, and run to Confusion.

That Swearing in their own Case is apt, by degrees to lead Men into as little Regard of such Oaths, as they have of their ordinary Talk, I think there is reason to suspect, from what has been observed in something of that kind, Masters of. Ships are a sort of Men generally Industrious and Sober, and I suppose may be thought, for their Number and Rank, to be equally Honest to any other sort of Men: And yet, by the Discourse I have had with Merchants in other Countries, I find, That they think in those Parts, they take a great Liberty in their Custom-house Oaths, to that degree, that I remember I was once told, in a Trading Town beyond Sea, of a Master of a Vessel, there esteemed a sober and fair Man, who yet could not hold saying, God forbid that a Custom-house Oath should be a Sin.

I say not this, to make any Reflection upon a sort of Men, that I think as uncorrupt as any other; and who, I am sure, ought in England to be cherished and esteem’d as the most industrious and most beneficial of any of its Subjects. But I could not forbear to give this here as an Instance, how dangerous a Temptation it is, to bring Men customarily to Swear, where they may have any Concernment of their own.

And it will always be worthy the Care and Consideration of Law-makers, to keep up the Opinion of an Oath High and Sacred, as it ought to be, in the Minds of the People; which can never be done, where frequency of Oaths, biassed by Interest, has establisht a neglect of them; and Fashion (which it seldom fails to do) has given Countenance to what Profit rewards.

I think few would consider it a sin to lie to a traffic cop, a diversity officer, an IRS auditor, a narc, or in innumerable other circumstances in our current society.  Fashion has given countenance to what Profit rewards.  And so civil Society has broken into pieces, and our morality is in confusion.

Which is why we need Politics 2.0 – a world where a thousand nations offer a thousand choices for the moral foundation and institutional implementation of society.  Where we explicitly sign social contracts based on our internal moral compass, and in a world where law and morality are aligned, where the rules are not onerous or against our authentic natures, can simply follow the rules, and restore the great Bond of Society.


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  3. inquisitive neurologist permalink
    February 19, 2010 5:30 am

    you might enjoy my essay on polycentric governance:

  4. February 15, 2010 11:38 pm

    Sure, there are economies of scale for some aspects, especially in theory. But in practice, the net seems to be a strong diseconomy. And it is the practical net which matters, not one theoretical component. Look at the sizes of the top 10 countries on the Heritage Index – the US is the only large country.

    • February 15, 2010 11:48 pm

      Which net? To which group? When? On what set of services?

      There are many groups in the U.S. at least that are unquestionably net beneficiaries of government — the employees of many financial services firms, for example.

      • February 15, 2010 11:59 pm

        I believe that the game of democracy is one in which many small groups steal from everyone at a net loss. While each instance of stealing may be a win viewed in isolation, for most individuals the net result is a loss. Including the employees of financial services firms.

        The question is: what is the value of government services compared to the cost? And how does that difference vary by size? For the obvious principal/agent reasons, the larger a democracy is, the less able voters are to monitor politicians performance, and the worse it performs.

  5. February 15, 2010 5:40 pm

    The problem is that the economies of scale to government do not increase in parity — in most places, most of the time — with the uniformity of moral norms. Moral beliefs are not as uniform as the desire to conserve scarce resources.

    The result is the frustration of morality (in the physics sense of frustration:, and the solution provided by representative democracy is what Sunstein describes as “incompletely theorized agreements.”

    You can minimize frustration through turbulence — i.e., breaking people up into smaller and more temporary coalitions. But for most of us, most of the time, that doesn’t sound like a great solution. It would be interesting to hear from seasteaders and others interested in a cambrian explosion in government how and when this default preference for stability and consistency should be resisted and for what reasons.

    • February 15, 2010 10:34 pm

      What economies of scale in government?

      Current governmental systems appear to have major dis-economies of scale.

      • February 15, 2010 10:55 pm

        Law enforcement, judicial systems, national defense — there are many examples. Yes, there are diseconomies too. The curve can have more than one inflection point.

  6. NOTAL permalink
    February 15, 2010 4:27 pm

    Interesting post Patri. I definitely see how problems arise from the fact that a society’s rules are antagonistic with morality. What exactly do you mean by aligning the rules with morality? Should everything that is immoral be against the rules and punishable? As a Christian, I believe some things to be immoral (lying, taking the Lord’s name in vain, etc), yet I don’t think these things should be “illegal” or punishable. Just because I am a Christian, and Christianity is my moral foundation, does not mean that I want to live in a Theocracy, with Christian morality imposed as law. On the other hand, I would probably like a society where immorality (as I see it) is socially frowned upon.

    • February 15, 2010 10:14 pm

      Good point, there will always be a difference between what should be illegal, and what is immoral. Within the things allowed by law, some will always be more just, more proper, more admirable than others. It is good to distinguish between “doing this will put you in jail” and “doing this will get you shunned” – to have gradations of punishment.

      But that doesn’t change the basic idea that people will be happier and more honorable and more relaxed living in a society where their own beliefs about what should be forbidden match well with what is illegal, and their own beliefs about what should be frowned on match with what society frowns on.

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