When the “rule of law” makes no sense, vigilante law takes over

The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) has just published a very good article examining why respect for the law is diminishing among Americans.

Given the events of the last few months, there can be little doubt that Americans’ respect for the rule of law is dissipating, and this is happening in no small part because inconsistencies in the law are becoming obvious.

. . .

Governor Cuomo recently issued emergency orders that New Yorkers must wear face masks in public, practice social distancing, and self-quarantine when they return to New York from various high-risk states. The Governor managed to violate all three of his own rules recently on a trip to Savannah. A private citizen who behaves contrary to his own rules is merely a hypocrite. But when an elected official does so, it sends a message to the people. It tells them the official’s orders just aren’t that important.

. . .

In response to COVID-19, the government has suspended all manner of rules and regulations originally enacted for public safety. To encourage telemedicine, the Department of Health and Human Services suspended rules requiring medical professionals to have separate licenses to practice medicine in multiple states. The Food and Drug Administration relaxed regulations in order to allow companies producing COVID-19 test kits to get the kits to market faster. The Department of Transportation suspended rules limiting the number of hours truckers could drive per day so as to get products to markets faster. It’s inconsistent that the government would find it necessary to suspend rules enacted for our safety in order to make us safer. Either the suspension is not making us safer, or the suspended rules weren’t making us safe to begin with.

When the law becomes incomprehensible and inconsistent, people lose faith in both the law and government institutions that secure it. This may go a long way toward explaining the growing political animosity of the past decades. In ceasing to be a nation of laws, we have become instead a nation of lawmakers. If the law is to be king, it must speak in a clear and consistent voice. And if that can’t happen, it should say as little as possible.

There’s more at the link.

Sadly, that’s typical of most governments, and has been throughout history.  The initial tendency for any government is to rule imperiously.  “Do as I say, because I say so!”  Kings and emperors were notorious for this.  As democracy spread, the new style of government found it necessary to persuade people to respect the law rather than merely command it;  but that wasn’t too difficult if obedience to the laws was associated with receiving benefits from the government that made them.  “You want roads, and sewers, and street lights, and good governance?  Then you have to accept these rules and regulations along with them.  They’re part of the package.  Rebel against them, and your towns/cities/states will become a lot less habitable.”

After a while, when society grew too big, and there were simply too many people to pay attention to minor groups or problems, the unelected bureaucracy took over.  Politicians were too busy attending to the broad sweep of problems to worry about how to implement solutions.  Instead, they delegated that authority to faceless bureaucrats who didn’t have to answer to the people for what they did.

That’s how a simple legislative act like establishing the Transportation Security Administration can lead to endless delays and pettifogging bureaucracy imposed on our travel.  As FEE’s article points out:

TSA regulations … restrict the size of liquid containers that may be brought on board aircraft. Passengers caught with over-sized containers are required to throw them in a trash can located at the security checkpoint. If over-sized liquids are a danger, they should be disposed of in a secure location, away from people. If they aren’t a danger, the TSA is simply wasting people’s time and causing aggravation by collecting them. The rule is inconsistent with the rule’s implementation.

Quite so.  Those regulations aren’t included in the law establishing the TSA.  They’re add-ons by faceless bureaucrats drunk with power.  “Do as I say, peasant, even if it doesn’t make sense, or you won’t fly today!”

An even worse danger is when politics determine how the law is applied.  Take St. Louis, Missouri.  Rioters who are clearly breaking the law are arrested by police – and immediately released without charge by the left-wing District Attorney, who sympathizes with their position.  On the other hand, the McCluskeys, who took up arms to defend their home (entirely in accordance with the provisions of Missouri law) are charged with “brandishing a weapon” by that same DA, in defiance of the law (so much and so obviously in defiance of it that the State’s Attorney-General immediately moved to dismiss the charges, and the State’s Governor promised to pardon the McCluskeys if necessary).

When the enforcement of laws is selective, depending on the political views of those charged with their enforcement, then the rule of law no longer applies.  That’s one of the primary reasons why the USA is in such turmoil today.  The law is not being equally or fairly applied in far too many jurisdictions.  Did the residents and businesses in the so-called “CHOP” zone in Seattle consent to be stripped of police protection, and governed by arbitrary “mob rule”?  Of course they didn’t – but they weren’t asked for their opinion.  Political correctness overruled their rights under the law.

Tragically, such policies and incidents can have only one outcome.  People will take the law into their own hands, because they can’t trust the authorities to administer it fairly and even-handedly.  Are demonstrators approaching a neighborhood, and those living there know the law enforcement authorities will do little to protect them from extremists?  Then they’re going to protect themselves, by any means they deem necessary.  Genuinely peaceful demonstrators will be treated the same as violent extremists, because there’s no time or inclination to distinguish between them.

What’s more, locals will probably obstruct any subsequent investigation, because they have to look after their own.  After all, they know law enforcement authorities won’t.  Indeed, in some jurisdictions, investigators may turn a blind eye to defenders’ transgressions.  After all, when so many demonstrators are calling to “defund the police”, the police know who’s on which side – and they’re almost certainly reluctant to crack down on their own supporters.  If evidence conveniently “can’t be found” to support charges, those charges will never be brought.

I fear vigilantism and “lynch law” are about to make a comeback, because in the absence of the even-handed, objective rule of law, there’s little alternative.



  1. Organized police forces are less than 200 years old. They were established to stop vigilantism and protect accused criminals from mobs of angry victims- so called "street justice."

    The mobs demanding that police be defunded think that this will mean they can break the law with impunity. Instead, they will find that the penalty for stealing, looting, and other crimes is death.

  2. Definitely taking a step back from the last 200 years of progress. I think there are some politicians that think if they make Trump look weak that his supporters will vote him out. Others think that a scarred populace will be happy for whatever jackboots replace the police and they will be in Democratic control. Then there are the useful idiots and virtue signalers and the criminals that see opportunity in big bold letters. The cadre at the top of the chaos want an incident. They have been trying to provoke one, then they can point it out as if it happened with no provocation and they are innocent lambs ratcheting the emotions up further.

    There are people significantly invested in stopping Trump and his supporters.

  3. Disagree with the public safety rationale regarding telemedicine and doctors practicing across state lines. Those provisions were implemented as rent-seeking measures to protect the members in each state. It may, and probably does, make sense to require attorneys to be licensed in each state they practice in. After all, laws vary considerably from state to state. Hence the requirement to associate a local attorney, who is presumably familiar with the local legal landscape, when out of state attorneys try a case.

    Human bodies and their malfunctions have far less local variance. A heart attack or cancer in Texas is not really different from a heart attack or cancer in Wisconsin. This is why over 30 states are members of the multi-state nursing compact, where a valid nursing license in say, Texas, is recognized in Wisconsin. Wanna guess which states haven't adopted this eminently logical measure? No surprise, it's the deep blue ones like the Leftist Coast, the Northeast, Illinois etc.

  4. Already seeing the beginnings of it even in a simple visit to a local hardware store. If everyone knew each other, any masks (Governor's EO mandate…) were down. ONLY there was a stranger/newcomer who might go "Karen" did the masks go up. The mask mandate is being taken about as well as highway speed limits, if even that much.

  5. But when an elected official does so, it sends a message to the people. It tells them the official’s orders just aren’t that important.

    That doesn't state it properly. What is really happening in the US and has been happening for some time is the implementation of the Neo-Nobility. Rules that apply to the peasants just do not apply to us, and we both know it & demonstrate it by not obeying those rules. I say rules because they aren't laws that have been voted on by the legislature. Instead, they have been decreed, "Do as I say, because I say so!", but violating them will generate the same penalties as violating a real law.

    However, unlike the Nobility of the middle ages, where there was a concept of noblesse oblige, today we see the Neo-Nobility treating the groups of peasants according to how that group aligns with the values of that Noble. Have a "peaceful protest" or attend John Lewis's funeral? Masks, social distancing, & contact tracing (Cuomo decreed you can't ask a person if they were in a "peaceful protest") doesn't matter. Try to attend a church, walk on the beach, etc.? All the sudden, the full set of rules are applied.

    The peasants see this disparity in how people are treated, and particularly how they are individually treated when there are crimes committed against their person or property, and the idea of the 3 SSS's (shoot, shovel, & shut up) becomes attractive. Vigilantes will not be far behind, as individuals form groups for mutual defense. You and your fellow authors have explored these ideas in your fictional books, but having read them, I feel that the day is coming when they won't be fiction anymore.

    1. Steve Sky, you hit it on the head.
      I just wanted to mention the three S's has been extended to big cities. Try Shoot, Skedaddle, and Shut up

  6. Bureaucrats will ALWAYS seek to impose rules. Those rules let them impose penalties. And guess what funds their pay packets?

  7. Particularly at the local level, most of the people who really yearn to Be In Charge, already are. Political designations, particularly the Rep-Dem labels, are basically meaningless. So if things come apart the town or county rulemakers and enforcers are not likely to behave much differently than they already do.

  8. This disrespect for the law was taking hold under the Obama Administration when he
    stuck his misinformed nose into every case of black man vs. cops that made the news
    and his use of weaponized government agencies to destroy innocent political opponents.
    It worsened when President Trump was elected and we watched dirty FBI and DOJ agents
    take orders from dirtier politicians to create two sets of rules while lying constantly
    to kangaroo the President and his supporters using corrupt judges.
    The "Flyover People" so hated by the Left aren't stupid. They know that two sets of rules
    means there are no rules.

  9. Vigilance Committees did a pretty good job of cleaning up San Francisco and Montana back in the day…

  10. Peter, I'm sure you've heard the name "Ken McElroy". The law was powerless to stop him, because he intimidated any witnesses who might have testified against him. In the end, the town took care of the problem the best way they could think of–and to this day, nobody has spoken about it.
    –Tennessee Budd

  11. "…the police know who's on which side – and they're almost certainly reluctant to crack down on their own supporters."

    That statement is demonstrably wrong. The cops have been coming down hard on anyone who defends themselves when attacked by antifa. This clearly demonstrates that the driving force for the cops is protecting their future pension income, which they think requires them to follow the dictates of the communists in the gov. If the cops were smart, they would have thought that over a bit more than they have. There will be a price for that.

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