William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Lawyer Argues We Should Ignore Inconvenient Laws

The law is for squeebs

Ilya Somin calls himself a lawyer, and he probably is one, too. Therefore what he says about the law must be right.

Convinced by Somin’s arguments, I will later this week head off to Sweden and set up shop on the streets. Why? Well, as embarrassing as it is to admit, I am unemployed. And I’ve heard Sweden has a heck of a welfare system. Once I make it past the border, they’ll have to take care of me. Give me food, a comfortable place in which to eat it, dignity. It’s their responsibility since they have more than I do.

Of course I will be breaking the law by crossing Sweden’s border, and they may seek to call me an “illegal immigrant” or even, Heaven forfend, a criminal. I prefer the term “undocumented worker,” incidentally. And I might even try to find work, if somebody will offer it to me. The Swedish government had better not try to kick me out, either, else I’ll sick Somin on them. Then—look out!

Somin would tell those mean hateful racist Swedes “Illegal Immigration is Easily Justified Under a Weak Presumption in Favor of Obedience to Law.” He says, “If obeying a law is inconvenient and violating it is unlikely to harm anyone, [most people] believe that violation is morally justified.”

“Strict compliance” of laws we disfavor “would be annoying and inconvenient”. And this includes all those “violations of various federal regulations that ordinary citizens and small businesses routinely run afoul of.” He forgets to mention that ordinary citizens have no idea of the number and extent of federal laws, which increase yearly in number, reach, and severity of punishment. But everybody knows crossing a border without permission is illegal.

From this he concludes, “If you apply this theory to illegal immigration, it becomes clear that illegal immigrants have a much stronger case for violating immigration laws than native-born citizens do for their routine violations of the speed limit and various petty federal regulations.”

Far as I can tell, his “theory” is that you only have to follow those laws which you don’t find annoying and inconvenient. And that you can ignore those laws which you have concluded won’t harm others.

The anarchist in me likes this. Piracy has always had an appeal. “A short life but a merry one!” is my cry. Besides, if Sweden leaves me to rot in this country, full of progressive head hunters gunning for heretics like myself, it would (Somin’s words) consign me to poverty and oppression “through no fault of [my] own, merely because [I was] born on the wrong side of a line on the map.” And that’s just not fair.

Hey! Sweden! You rich so-and-sos. Gimme! And make it quick.

Update My jet lag is making me miss the obvious. Somin likens illegally crossing borders to speeding. He forgets that speeders get tickets, and that repeat offenders lose their licenses or even go to jail. Somin is a lawyer.

20 Comments

  1. Mans a fool, I notice he’s linked http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2014/04/the_righteous_s.html and that mentions Nazis in the first paragraph. Fail. Some of the post Nazi arguments don’t exactly shine either…

    Thing is, using the lawyers reasoning, the 100 millionth illegal entering the US will have as much moral imperative as the first, assuming that the same criteria can be met w.r.t hunger, oppression.

    Has anyone ever done calculations on the number of people who’d arrive in the US if it opened its borders?

  2. “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

  3. Ilya Somin is not a lawyer (he doesn’t practice law) he’s a law professor at George Mason University. http://mason.gmu.edu/~isomin/

  4. Briggs

    April 9, 2014 at 10:40 am

    MattS,

    Well, “Yale Law School, J.D., February 2001” and “Massachusetts, admitted July 2001; United States Supreme Court, admitted October 2011.”

    From the CV page at that link.

  5. Picking on the arguments of lawyers. What ever happened to Happy Week?

  6. I had a friend who made a half-hearted attempt to immigrate to Sweden. She did get in, but she had to swear that she would not soak up any of the State’s resources. She stayed for awhile, but definitely didn’t feel welcome.

  7. @ Steve Crook

    the 100 millionth wouldn’t come. He or she wouldn’t find the conditions in such a United States to be any better than the land from which he or she wanted to emigrate. It’s libertarian equilibration in action. Emigration/immigration will happen with uuniversally free borders until all countries (should such a construct still exist) have effectively the same standard of living.

  8. A big problem is the black market for labor(hiring illegals) that is an effect of minimum wage laws. The libertarian views I’ve read describe it as no different than raising the price of cigarettes and creating a black market for them. Think prohibition and the illegal markets that created. If there was no minimum wage requirement then the barrier for lower-skilled, entry level documented workers is removed and it becomes viable to hire more citizens and the black market dissolves thus ending the incentive to cross the border illegally.

  9. I think there needs to be a distinction between “inconvenient” and “unjust” laws. The pretend speed limit is an example of an inconvenient law, since while most disagree with it (by their actions if not their words) it does not apply differently to different people, just because of who they are.

    I would make the case that many of the immigration laws are “unjust” laws, because they apply differently to different people, just because of who they are. A person born in India is has a much smaller chance of getting a green card than a person born in Malta. If one has $500,000 to “invest” in the USA, citizenship can effectively be purchased (EB-5 visa). And we have even created modern indentured servitude, in the form of the “you can’t leave your employer” H1-B visa.

    Disobeying an unjust law may result in backlashes by the state, and those who disobey will undoubtedly be treated harshly. But our politicians should be looking to the amount of folks disobeying a law, and while that in itself is not enough evidence to say that it is a bad law, it should call it into severe question.

  10. Somin is one of the bloggers on the Volokh Conspiracy, and outstanding and very interesting legal blog recently acquired by the Washington Post. Most of the time, his posts are quite good.

    But, immigration is a national security issue. Somin shows why one should never trust a Libertarian on national security. No matter how reasonable they may be in other areas, they are simply blind to reality on security, and especially immigration. They can’t even grasp the concept that a nation needs to control who crosses its borders. They ignore the obvious argument that if you open up the borders of a rich welfare state, untold millions in the world will seek to cross it – even billions – causing it to become as bad as where they came from.

  11. Briggs

    April 9, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    John,

    The only question is: why hasn’t somebody acquired WMBriggs.com yet?

  12. From Alexis De Tocqueville

    “When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right of the majority to command, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind.”

    How is it that we can deny someone the ability to make a better life for his family by crossing our borders? Isn’t that the point of pursuit of happiness?

    Regarding libertarians and national security, this is attributed to Ben Franklin.

    “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    And in case you don’t think politicians will use national security to remove your freedom and liberty, who can forget this rather recent quote from the mayor of Chicago?

    “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

  13. Hard to say from what source an illegal immigrant acquires a moral obligation to obey the law of a state of which he is neither citizen nor sanctioned resident. Simply crossing the border does not seem to trigger any explicit or implicit promise. It is certainly prudential to obey local laws, but that’s about it.

  14. Why do you say that Somin forgets the penalties for speeding? They’re simply irrelevant to the fairly limited point that he makes. To me it seems a true statement that many people see nothing morally wrong in speeding even if they accept that there is a risk of punishment. Even many who are fined or worse think that they do not morally deserve it. I am not one of those people, although if you chose slightly more obscure examples you might think I was similarly lawless. Somin seems to be one of those people, although he avoids putting his own view explicitly. Even if we disagree with him on the morality of it, we can agree that it is a common approach to issues such as speeding which on the face of it may have implications for how you think about immigration if you care to be consistent.

    Somin does explicitly point out that he hasn’t actually argued against deportation. You could criticise him for only making a limited argument against one particular claim, and not coming down one way or the other on the more popular aspects of the issue. But that’s a strange criticism to make on this blog, isn’t it?

  15. It is my understanding that there are two cases where ignoring law is both constitutionally justified and morally valid in defending liberty and freedom: State nullification of federal law, as introduced by Thomas Jefferson in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, and jury nullification of law at any level, as instructed to jurors by the first US Chief Justice, John Jay.

  16. Briggs

    April 10, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Jonathan D,

    No. I think the laws against speeding are good and should be enforced. We can argue about the limits at this place and that. It’s true, just like in illegal border crossings, we can’t catch every speeder. But those who are caught pay a penalty depending on the level of their offense. Similarly, those caught crossing illegally should be sent home, or face other penalties depending on the circumstance. Everybody has always seen the phenomenon of a group of traffic slowing in the presence of the cop car. Same thing at police staffed borders.

    We can say more people should be let in, which is the equivalent (as it were) of increasing speed limits (and I think both are good ideas). But that doesn’t mean letting more in everywhere always. We wouldn’t want a speed limit of 70 in front of our homes or schools.

    So, no. Somin’s argument is not good.

  17. I think the analogy kind of breaks because it’s not a set speed limit in front of our home – it’s a speed limit of 15 for Chevys, 25 for Fords, 45 for Hondas, 95 for BMWs, and unlimited for Rolls’… What makes a law just is that it’s applied to all.

  18. Briggs

    April 10, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Nate,

    Again, I disagree. We already now give preference to, and should give preference to, exceptionally gifted individuals. Or people who are family members of current US citizens. And so on. Picking “randomly” who gets in without regard to circumstance, culture, our need, etc. doesn’t make sense.

  19. Briggs, I still don’t think you’re addressing Somin’s actual argument. He isn’t talking about whether the speeding laws are good, or whether they should be enforced. He is talking about the morality of breaking them.

    As he acknowledges, different people have different approaches to morality regarding things like speeding laws, and he tries to deal with these on a fairly academic case by case approach. On one level, if you don’t agree with the (fairly common) approach to speeding that he lays out, then he doesn’t expect you to agree with that section. On the other hand, even if we don’t accept that there is nothing wrong with some level of speeding, his argument would still imply that a character judgment on someone should be more badly affected by knowing they illegally crossed a border than by knowing they speed.

    None of which means that the laws shouldn’t be enforced.

  20. On the one hand, illegal immigration is a violation of a social contract. On the other hand, the contract in question is in restraint of trade.

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