As Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent to which our governments spy on us emerged, I discovered—with some exceptions—that my large-ish sample of US friends (N=approx 300) and my large-ish sample of British friends (N=also approx 300) came, over time, to react differently. The Americans divided evenly and quickly into two hostile groups. My Facebook newsfeed filled with words like “hero” or “traitor”.
There was little middle ground. British friends, meanwhile, were more equivocal, and not a few of them found Glenn Greenwald conceited (journalists in Britain currently rank somewhere below politicians and used car salesmen, but a little above pedophiles, when it comes to public approbation). The British response was often a version of, “well done, but you must be very sure of yourself” or “brilliant, but could only have been done by someone who thinks he’s above the law”.
I found myself in huge disputes with both groups when I suggested that Snowden’s actions were morally complex and finished up leaving the topic alone after several Threads o’ Doom. Of late, however, sundry Americans have come over all British. First, there was this lengthy and thoughtful piece in Slate, and then there was Rand Paul.
Rand Paul made the strongly British point: “I don’t think we can selectively apply the law.” Note that Paul fils is not calling Snowden a traitor or engaging in silly hyperbole. Instead, he argues that he deserves some punishment, because an individual isn’t more important than the rule of law.
Why is this particularly British? Because the UK has no history of entrenched rights, and a much weaker tradition of individuals elevating their consciences above the law, an individual who breaks the law over here is expected to make like Martin Luther King and face trial (even if he or she pleads not guilty).
The most celebrated example en masse of this behavior was in response to the Thatcher government’s introduction of a Roman-style Poll Tax. So many people refused to pay the tax (but still nonetheless fronted up in court) that enforcement became impossible, and Britain had a Henry David Thoreau moment: either repeal the law or throw half the country’s population in the slammer. The government went with the former. Obviously this kind of thing only applies in developed liberal democracies. Similar behaviour in China would have resulted in a mass dose of lead poisoning.
In short, I’m not hugely happy with the idea of people breaking the law for reasons of principle (even when those principles are very high minded) and then being unwilling to take the rap if caught. If we all took it upon ourselves to break the law whenever we felt like it because reasons, things would go to hell in a handbasket pretty quickly. For every Edward Snowden there are people committing far more serious crimes they also believe to be sanctioned by their consciences: FGM. Honour killings. Vendetta. And applying it selectively is the fastest and surest way to destroy the rule of law, particularly the requirement (which Hayek sets out with admirable clarity in The Road to Serfdom) that laws be applied consistently.
We can’t let people off simply because they happen to break the law in ways we like. So Socrates drank the hemlock. Cicero waited patiently for his executioner. Thoreau and King went to jail.