I attended the funeral of an old client the other day. JP* was an immensely strong man, both physically and mentally, and had built a very successful construction company. He was old-school and somehow you knew that, if there were difficult choices to make, JP would always do the right thing, however hard that might be. Now, ‘doing the right thing’ here doesn’t necessarily mean doing that which is right or correct. JP was not a sophisticated man and he may not have always known the best course of action. Indeed, he may not have even been able to explain why he made the decisions he did. However, given a particular set of circumstances, JP would know with rock solid certainty that he was ‘doing the right thing’. In 1928 the American essayist, Albert Jay Nock, wrote about this practice of ‘doing the right thing’ and claimed it was a peculiarly English quality that had arisen because the English were relatively free in the sense that they did not have many laws to obey.
Nock was onto something here. Every new law restricts the space in which an individual can exercise his or her own judgment and consequently limits the development of individual responsibility. Should it really be against the law to put a plastic bottle in the wrong recycling bin? By doing so we move an activity from the realm of individual responsibility to the realm of compulsion and lose all the benefits that come from encouraging individuals to develop a sense of what is the right thing to do as opposed to what they are merely compelled to do.
Even a Google search could not come up with an answer to the question of how many millions of federal, state and municipal laws there are in the United States, although it did come up with the figure of 40,627 new laws that came onto the books on January 1, 2010. Our excessively legalistic culture encourages the view that it’s OK to do anything that it’s legal to do – at its worst a form of moral equivalence and at its best a blanket acceptance of bad manners. How else to explain the behavior of congressional leaders such as Nancy Pelosi and Spencer Bachus, who made money from trading stocks using information they had obtained in confidential congressional meetings. While they broke no laws they certainly showed a lack of common decency as well as a complete inability to comprehend what it means to do the right thing. In fact, this latter sense is so foreign to our leadership, on both sides of the House, that most people would be genuinely amazed to discover that any politician ever acted upon it, especially if it was contrary to their own interests. If only we could stop, or better still, reverse the legislative assembly line for a while and help foster the growth of individual responsibility, maybe it would also become clear that fiscal responsibility and living within our means, is the right thing to do, both at home and in government.
“It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.” H.L. Mencken