Crime and Human Rights (14): The Limits of the Law

We need rules to live together in a spirit of respect for each other’s rights, freedom and equality. We need to tell people what they can, cannot or should do in order to respect the rights, freedom and equality of others, and we need to coerce people if they don’t respect these rules.

It seems that the best way to do this is to translate these rule into laws and then to use a justice system and a police system to enforce respect for these laws. That’s obviously not the only way to do it – education, tradition, social control, incentives etc. are other ways – but it’s one that has proven to be successful (yet not perfectly successful since legal prohibition of acts and enforcement of this prohibition never completely prevent those acts and may even backfire). If that is correct, then laws and their enforcement institutions are necessary parts of modern life.

So, these are, in broad strokes, the limits of the law: laws should protect people’s rights, freedom and equality, no more, no less, and nothing else. However, once the institutions of the law and of law enforcement have been created, there’s always the possibility and perhaps even the certainty that they will be used not to protect rights, freedom and equality, but for other purposes, or for the enforcement of controversial and exotic interpretations of rights, freedom and equality. That’s one way in which the law can overstep its limits or, if you want, become corrupted. (I focus here on the corruption of the law, not the law enforcement institutions. The latter is for another time).

Quantitative limitations

But a system of law can overstep its limits in several other ways as well. The purpose of the law – rights, freedom and equality – is a limitation, but it’s a limitation that requires other limitations, for example a quantitative limitation. There’s always a tendency for the number of laws to become too large. That’s a problem because a violation of this quantitative limitation has qualitative consequences for the ability of the system of law to serve its purpose, namely the protection of rights, freedom and equality:

  • When laws become too numerous, it becomes difficult for people to know what is and is not legal. As a result, people may find that they are ambushed by the law. When people are ambushed in this way, they risk losing their freedom through no fault of their own, and that means that the system of law doesn’t perform its main function, namely protecting rights, freedom and equality. Moreover, after having endured or seen this kind of ambush, people will start doubting the value of the whole system of law. This undermines the credibility of the system, making it again difficult to use it for its intended function.
  • When laws become too numerous, the enforcement institutions will have an increasingly difficult task. Some laws will no longer be enforced, or will be enforced in an unsatisfactory or selective way, something which again destroys the credibility and hence the effectiveness of the system of law and again has consequences for the purpose of the system.
  • When laws become too numerous, it’s likely that the focus of the law will be lost. People have a limited number of rights, and there are a limited number of ways in which people can infringe on each other’s freedom and equality. Hence, the number of laws should also be limited. When there are more laws than necessary, people will be coerced for other reasons than rights, freedom and equality, and they will rightly resent this. This resentment will again be directed at the law in general, including the laws that are necessary for rights, freedom and equality.

Formal limitations

It’s not only the number of laws that can force the system of law beyond its limits. The nature of laws is also important. After all, just as a vast body of law can coerce too much, so can one very sweeping law. Laws should have certain characteristics if they are to stay within their limits:

  • Laws should be precise: they should be targeted at very specific threats to freedom, equality and rights, and not at vague threats or at threats to something else. For instance, a law that makes hate speech illegal, but doesn’t specify hate speech, is too vague. It risks coercing too much and hence destroying rights, freedom and equality rather than protecting those values.
  • Laws should also be effective: they should have a proven track record of countering specific threats to rights, freedom and equality. Otherwise they should be repealed. It often happens that laws are counterproductive: rather than countering a specific threat to rights, freedom and equality, they enhance it. For example, capital punishment for murder may make it more likely that witnesses are murdered.
  • Laws should be proportional. They should not provide a punishment for those threatening rights, freedom and equality that produces a greater threat to the rights, freedom and equality of the punished criminals (and their relatives etc.). And they should not produce other unwanted side-effects that have an impact on rights, freedom and equality. An example of a law – or better a set of laws – that creates more harm than it prevents is the “war on drugs”. Maybe this is a set of laws that effectively suppresses drugs, but in doing so it disproportionately harms rights, freedom and equality in other places (it leads to excessive incarceration of ethnic minorities).
  • Laws should not be secret, retroactive (a retroactive law is one that punishes acts that have occurred before the law came into force) or unstable (they should not change all of the time). Otherwise, it becomes very difficult for people to respect the law, creating again the risk of ambush and the consequent loss of credibility for the whole system of law.
  • Laws should not be bad law. They should not be too complex, incomprehensible or contradictory. Otherwise they will have the same effect as secret, retroactive or unstable laws.
  • And, finally, laws should be necessary. If there’s a non-coercive tool to protect rights, freedom and equality that is equally effective and proportional, then this tool should used. A law, after all, because it is coercive, is a violation of freedom. Laws can therefore only be used if they are the only available means to produce more freedom than they take away, or if they are more effective.

Content limitations

Another limitation of the law is that it can only be designed to serve rights, freedom and equality. If people want to waive or destroy their own rights, freedom and equality, the law should not force them to do otherwise. In other words, the law should not be paternalistic, although there may be room for some form of soft paternalism in the case of people who obviously don’t understand their own interests or who have a hard time acting on their interests. If paternalism can enhance autonomy, why not. I won’t develop that point in this post, however.

Some also argue that religious people, or people holding other, non-religious but substantial moral convictions that are very controversial, should avoid using those religious or moral convictions as a justification for laws. Laws should in other words be neutral in order to avoid coercing people in ways that they can never accept. I rejected this argument here, so in my view that’s not a proper content limitation of the law.

If we want to keep the law within the limits stipulated here, we have to be aware of the possible roads to corruption. First, legislators should think, in every legislative decision, about the ways in which the proposed law is necessary and effective for the protection of freedom, equality and rights. Next, they should respect some formal and content limitations, as well as quantitative ones. And finally, they should have a coherent understanding of the nature of freedom, equality and rights. That, of course, in controversial – different people will always have different views of the proper meaning of these concepts. However, democratic deliberation and public reasoning can at least guarantee majority support for a particular interpretation of this meaning, and make it possible to avoid private and self-interested meanings to sneak into the law.


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