April 21, 2002
Rule of Law

One of the things that is supposed to be famously wrong about the US is how you can get sued just for looking cross-eyed at another person. Little old ladies spill coffee on themselves and get a billion bucks, guys get their wanks stuck in the intake of a hot tub and sue the hotel, that sort of thing.

What nobody seems to understand is these things are the "background noise" of a system that works.

Back when we were all hitting each other over the head with rocks, justice came from your elders. People lived in groups of less than 30, everyone in that group knew everyone else and (because we haven't changed all that much in 150,000 years) everyone knew everyone else's business. Conflicts between individuals which couldn't be resolved by grandma cracking someone over the head would go to the chief, and what he said was the final word. There were no appeals... who would you appeal to? When the chief was good, justice was fair. When he wasn't, it wasn't, but you always knew ahead of time because usually the chief was your mother's-brother's-wife's-cousin, and you'd known him all your life. It may not have worked all the time, but it worked.

Agriculture brought the first nasty knock to this system. Suddenly we weren't living in groups of 30, we were living in groups of 3,000, 30,000, even a million in one or two rare instances. People's initial response was to simply "scale up" the existing system, with just enough modifications to keep it going. You added more chiefs in the middle, and the big chief just ruled more people. The problem was with this many people you didn't always know what was going to happen ahead of time, because you couldn't know the chief. Since justice tended to be pretty binary back then (you either got free or you got dead), this lead to all sorts of unneeded violent confrontations.

So eventually a guy named Hammurabi figured out that the new invention the accountants were using to pay the bills (writing) could be used to lay out ahead of time what Hammurabi would do when presented with an appeal of some sort. "I decide you're stealing, you're going to lose a hand", "I decide you killed your wife, you're going to pay her family 30 shekels", "I decide you're plotting to let barbarians into my city, you're going to lose your head", that sort of thing. He had all this chiseled into big stone columns and set up in the middle of every city he ruled. We still have a few.

Of course, hardly anyone could read the writing. This didn't seem to make all that much difference because, as with modern societies, hardly anyone cared much what it said, as long as it said something. The invention of this first "law code" eventually lead to all sorts of unintended consequences. People suddenly expected a ruler's son to abide by the laws his father had created. Other people sprang up who could read and would (for a fee) help you figure out how to get or keep you out of trouble.

And law could be used for lots of things. If people can argue about it (and we argue about everything, endlessly), a law could be made to regulate it. The whole thing took on this clockwork quality, with each generation inheriting better and better mechanisms to regulate more and more things. Eventually it was discovered that you could run enterprises of amazing complexity with simple bits of paper.

As always, it wasn't perfect. Because of our propensity to cheat and find the seams in things, laws got really complicated really fast. It took the best and the brightest to figure it all out, and even they couldn't agree on some bits. The majority of the time there still had to be a single chief somewhere who gave a final say-so and had a really big guy handy (or was a really big guy) to smack around anyone who still didn't agree. And because there was a single chief you still had to worry whether or not he was an idiot or a lunatic. If he was either, he could and often did decide he knew best (while hardly ever actually knowing anything) and bedamned with the laws and then you were right back in the stone age, only with organized armies to make sure you did what the wacko said.

It took centuries for humanity to figure out solutions to these problems. The Greeks first figured out that if you give everyone a stake in the rules (democracy), everyone is much more likely to follow them. The Romans showed the consequences of using laws to run things by building an empire, effectively ruling most of the world. They then promptly showed the consequences of ignoring those rules while trying to run it.

After barbarians came and wrecked what was left, it took not quite a thousand years for a bunch of rich white guys to gather together and force a particularly wacko king to sign an agreement stating if they were going to pay for his damned little wars he was going to bloody well ask them what they thought first (King John and the Magna Carta).

And for some reason at this point the British took the ball and ran with it. It didn't all happen at once, and it was a long, bloody road full of setbacks, but within about three centuries they'd developed themselves most of a working democracy. It was, and to an extent unimaginable to Americans still is, ruled as much by traditions as it is by formalized laws, but it was a damned site better than what anyone else had almost anywhere else in the world.

And then not much more than a hundred years later another bunch of rich white guys got their heads together and decided that rules really were all you needed to run a country, and they didn't want to help pay for anyone's wars no matter how nicely they were asked.

The time between the invention of the first known codes of law (Hammurabi being only the best known) and their ultimate conclusion (the American Revolution) was about 3500 years. This is an important number, because it pretty much delineates the amount of time it takes humanity to come to terms with a radically new way of doing things (agriculture).

Of course, at around the time of the American revolution, the next radically new way of doing things was being ginned up in the countryside of Great Britain. Suddenly we weren't living in cities of thousands and countries of millions, we were living in cities of millions and countries of hundreds of millions. How in the world could anyone manage that many people?

Before you think "LAWS!", I have to tell you that you're wrong. You just don't need a lot of laws or lawyers when the people all agree ahead of time on what appropriate punishment is for a given crime. Tradition rules most countries, not laws.

It is this reason, and this reason alone, that Japan is such a safe country. It is this reason, and this reason alone, why nobody drives drunk in Saudi Arabia (well, not for very long anyway). And it is this reason, and this reason alone, why prostitution and most drugs are legal in Holland. Within each of these groups, diversity is comparatively low and it's relatively easy to build consensus on things. People just don't argue about this stuff because everyone already knows the answer.

This doesn't work for America. We are by design the most diverse nation the world had ever seen. And not only are we just diverse, our diversity is composed of groups of people who were and are so bloody minded and hard headed they would rather pull up stakes and move somewhere else than tow the party line. Even the folks who didn't ask to be moved here, being people with the same brains that god gave the folks who shoved them in boats and drug them over, eventually learned to be every bit as obstinate as any other group that lives here.

The sheer number of ways Americans can get in arguments simply beggars the imagination of someone who didn't grow up with it all. We get in passionate arguments over things as trivial as the color of the walls of a school, whether or not someone's dog is barking too loudly, or if a roommate should pay to have their cat's vomit removed from the carpet.

I want everyone who reads this that doesn't live in the US to listen up real close... in America, we have so little in common with each other culturally, and feel so passionately about what our own little group believes, that we will shoot people that disagree with us.

This last part is of course no surprise to any of you international readers. It makes the headlines and editorial pages of just about every other newspaper in the world. But the question they all skirt, which they never really seem to get around to asking is this: How, if us Americans are all sitting in this smelly, bubbly vat of murderous chaos, did we end up being the most powerful nation on the planet?

Now you get to say it... laws. Ours was the first nation founded, from scratch mind you, on ideas and laws. We're obnoxiously proud of it. I learned how to sing the preamble to the constitution when I was six years old. People born here are positively steeped in laws, ink on paper, as the final arbiter of our world. We make everyone who wasn't born here who wants to become a citizen vow to essentially give up their lives to a single piece of paper. And it's not even a particularly impressive piece of paper. It wasn't written by a god, or by a man informed by a god, or a man chosen by a god, but rather by a group of hard-headed and hard-nosed rich white guys who just wanted to make damned sure that nobody was going to take what they'd built away from them.

And the true miracle of America, the one the Saddams and the bin Ladens just can't get their heads around is we really will do it.

Neighbor's dog barking too loud? In Japan everyone would know, including the owner, what was too loud, but a Nigerian's definition of loud and a Trobriand islander's definition of loud can be two completely different things. Take 'em to court. Girlfriend skip out without paying rent? In Saudi Arabia everyone knows what's supposed to happen to make it right, but the rights of women from France are pretty damned different than those in the Congo. Take 'em to court. Husband take your grandmother's silverware when you threw him out after catching him boinking the secretary? In Switzerland this is a no-brainer because there are hundreds of years of tradition about who gets what. But property rights in Senegal don't even vaguely resemble those in Arkansas. Take 'em to court.

So the next time you switch past Judge Judy stop a minute. Don't roll your eyes and ponder the moral decline of western civilization, but instead wonder at the fact you're watching ground-zero of what makes this the most powerful nation the world has ever seen.

And then go tell your neighbor his dog is too loud. Threaten to sue!

Posted by scott at April 21, 2002 04:35 PM

eMail this entry!

I just read this again. Oh the joys of insomnia. I love the way your mind is just slightly off center. I also loved this essay the second time through

Posted by: Pat on May 28, 2002 04:21 AM
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