Grammar, logic, law, liberty

Steel of Hammurabi

Steel of Hammurabi

Kevin D. Williams writes that the written law “ranks up there with the wheel and fire” because it was the “first real constraint on the power of kings.”  He objects to those progressives who view the law “not as something that limits the ambitions of princes, but something that empowers them to do what they see fit.”

In the wake of the Halbig decision, liberals sniffed: Surely, Ezra Klein wrote, the Supreme Court is not going to gut the sublime work of policy poetry that is Obamacare in order to “teach Congress a lesson about grammar.” … (B)ut law is nothing if not language. The ancients understood something that has been neglected in recent centuries: Grammar is the foundation of logic.

Surely Hammurabi was not the first, but his code is our oldest example of the written law. Somewhere in the penumbras of pre-history, some long-forgotten Promethean genius did humankind a favor that surely ranks up there with the wheel and fire: the written law. It is a simple thing — “simple as a flower, and that’s a complicated thing.” …

The Hammurabic Code, along with its presumptive predecessors, represented something radical and new in human history. With the law written down — with the law fixed — a man who had committed no transgression no longer had reason to tremble before princes and potentates…

Perhaps it is not the case that in the 21st-century United States we can live under something as simple and straightforward as the Code of Hammurabi. But the principle is the same: We write laws down in order that citizens may know what is permissible under the generally promulgated rules of the polity. The writing down of laws was the first step on the road from subject to citizen, and to reverse that is to do violence to more than grammatical propriety, Mr. Klein’s huffery-puffery notwithstanding.

The written law was the first real constraint on the power of kings. An oral tradition is subject to constant on-the-fly revision. Mr. Klein and others of his persuasion would see us return to that primitive state: “Oh, sure, the law says that the IRS can only operate on state-created insurance exchanges, but that isn’t what we” — and who is this we? — “really meant. And besides, things will turn out other than as we desire if we follow the law as written, and who are you, and what is the law, to forbid us our desires?” It is easier to think that way when you believe that you represent a uniquely enlightened point of view, that you are acting in the public interest, and that your political rivals are wicked and ignorant

(A) system of law that presumptively sides with political power soon ceases to be any sort of system of law at all. Rather, it becomes a post facto justification for the will to power, an intellectual window dressing on might-makes-right rule.

The matter addressed in Halbig is hardly the Obama administration’s first attempt to circumvent the law as written — see Hobby Lobby, etc. — nor is it the progressives’ only attempt to impose what they imagine to be enlightened ad-hocracy on the American people. The disdain for the letter of the law is complexly intertwined with the progressive managerial imagination: The law, in their view, is not something that limits the ambitions of princes, but something that empowers them to do what they see fit. It is not surprising that conservative concerns about limited government frustrate and befuddle those who see the law in that way. They imagine government to be something like a plasma cutting table, a complex and precise tool that, in the right hands, can reshape the world in desirable, predictable ways. But government is not a complicated tool. It is in fact a simple tool: a bayonet.

Yuval Levin sees the same pattern and uses the current border crisis to explain the ugly politics behind the “legalization by edict” pattern:

In one sense, the approach the president is said to be contemplating does fit into a pattern of his use of executive power. That pattern involves taking provocative executive actions on sensitive, divisive issues to isolate people he detests, knowing it will invite a sharp response, and then using the response to scare his own base voters into thinking they are under assault when in fact they are on the offensive. That’s how moving to compel nuns to buy contraception and abortive drugs for their employees became “they’re trying to take away your birth control.” This strategy needlessly divides the country and brings out the worst instincts of people on all sides, but it has obvious benefits for the administration and its allies. Liberals get both the substantive action and the political benefit of calling their opponents radicals and getting their supporters worked up. Obama’s legalization of millions would surely draw a response that could then be depicted as evidence of Republican hostility to immigrants, rather than of Republican hostility to illegal executive overreach that tries to make highly significant policy changes outside the bounds of our constitutional order…

[The president has] on many occasions taken executive actions that have bent or broken the limits of the executive’s discretion in our system, [but this is] of a different scale and character, (not) selective enforcement of a new statute but rather just an action outside the law…

Though there may (or may not) be some political advantage to be gained, the tactics “divide the public and debase our system of government,” and “seems like just the sort of thing that a national leader would seek to avoid, rather than work to invite.”

James Taranto surveys the sudden appearance of the “impeachment” meme and wonders if it’s a White House tactic or a pitch for a satirical political film:

A beleaguered president tries to engineer his own impeachment in the hope of engendering public sympathy and turning the political tide in his favor.

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One Response to Grammar, logic, law, liberty

  1. “Subject” and “citizen” are interchangeable terms. Look it up in any legal dictionary, e.g. Black’s or Bouvier’s. Of course, this doesn’t fit the ubiquitous propagandic spin that so many — including yourself, evidently — regurgitate without doing any research.

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