Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Jury Duty: Never Again! (Part 4)

The trial is over. They settled after the proceedings on Friday, but they didn’t tell us until we came in yesterday. So the jury never did get to deliberate. (After all the time we had already spent, most of us were looking forward to talking the evidence over and seeing what sense we could make of it, and since the day was lost to work anyhow, we wanted to do something constructive.)

Everyone agreed that a man was struck by a car as he crossed a four-lane road between crosswalks at night. He and two other witnesses claimed he was struck as he walked across the street. The defendant and another witness claimed he was already across the street and had come off the sidewalk. The defendant claimed he was changing from the left lane to the right lane when he struck the plaintiff; the others claimed he was never in the left lane. And, as the defense lawyer put it as he chatted with us after we were dismissed, everyone looked like they were doing their best to tell the truth. It’s probably just as well we (they, I should say, since as an alternate, I would have been excused) didn’t need to deliberate.

What to think? Both the plaintiff and the defendant were well-educated, decent guys with annual salaries over six digits, yet they couldn’t settle their differences without conscripting forty-five people who make less money than they do for one day, then keeping ten of us for three extra days. That comes out to seventy-five man-days, which at the median income of about $20 per hour is about $12,000. (I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the money, since it’s my boss, not I, who will pay for my time off work, but I would guess he makes less than either of the litigants, so the argument stands.) This is in addition to the judge, the tipstaffs, the security guards, the janitors, and others whose salaries and other expenses are paid for by the taxpayers. Why would decent guys cause so many people such trouble for so little?

My answer: because they can. They weighed up their options and made a rational decision to do what they thought was in their best interests. The system allows them to spread the costs of their problems to their conscripted neighbors, and we have all been taught from the time we were young that it is perfectly moral for them to do so. After three-and-a-half years of private negotiation, they still couldn’t come to an agreement. Rather than call in a third party they could both trust and agree to abide by that person’s decision, they chose to have the state conscript strangers. The folly of that decision is shown by their realization on Friday that they were better off settling than allowing us to settle for them.

The existence of the state—by which I mean a system in which some people make laws that other people have to obey but the lawmakers don’t—provides a host of immoral incentives, what others have called moral hazard. When people can act with impunity, they will do so.

What rational police officer would knock on the front door during the day to arrest a drug dealer when he is less likely to be killed if he and a dozen others kick in the doors and windows in the middle of the night?

What rational soldier will attack a building full of enemy combatants (and women and children) on foot with a gun when he can call in a tank or a “surgical” bomb strike?

What rational politician will call for spending cuts when he can convince his constituents that only other people will be paying for the programs they benefit from?

What rational laid-off worker will start looking for a new job right away when he can live comfortably for weeks on unemployment?

What rational laborer will start his own business when his union is able to use the threat of violence to provide him with above-market wages for low-skilled work?

For that matter, why should I live in stinky Philadelphia when I can live in Lansdale and commute on trains or highways subsidized by folks in western Pennsylvania (and probably western Oregon)?

“The kindest acts of the wicked are cruel” (Prov 12:10). Even when the state tries to do what’s right, it tramples on the rights of the most vulnerable. The only solution is to dismantle it and build a society where people are equal before the law. If you think that’s crazy, ask yourself this: Moses told his people that the king was not to be above his subjects (Deut 17:15-20), and Jesus said that his people were not to be a privileged elite like “the kings of the gentiles” but servants (Luke 22:24-26); why is it that when millions of lives are literally at stake we feel justified in building a society that goes against both of those commands?

The excuse I hear most often is, “Society is so complex today we need [standing armies and police forces, tax-funded schools, licensing, vice laws, etc.].” If indeed society is so complex that we “need” inherently oppressive institutions, that these things are “necessary evils” (What kind of God would make evil necessary? See Rom 6:1. )perhaps instead of building and supporting inherently evil institutions, we should be working to make society less complex. And the best place to start is by dismantling the state.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


  1. Good series, Henry. I'm glad you're blogging -- you are writing clearly and cogently on topics that matter.

  2. P.S. Lew might be interested in this series, or an edited version of it. It's worth a try, and the quality of the writing and thinking is at least at par with what he publishes.

  3. Interesting views. Thanks for sharing.