Can We Change Society Through Laws?

I have posted this article immediately on the heals of my introductory post on the subject of Libertarianism. If you have not read that post first, please go read it now. Go ahead. I’ll be here when you get back.

Good. Now that you’re up to speed with me, this article is about whether it is possible to use the law to change the culture and the behavior of those around us.

It makes no sense to say that the law is a tool to make people behave morally. Whatever you believe about the inherent nature of people, whether we are all sinners or we’re basically good except for those wackos that get messed up by our parents, it is undeniable that virtue or a lack there of is a heart condition. Good people are those who have virtue in their hearts. Bad people are those who do not. In any case it is always true that good people do not need laws to tell them how to behave. They will behave virtuously out of the goodness of their heart. Bad people will not behave virtuously because they have no virtue in their hearts. No law can change this. It has been demonstrated time and again that people who want to behave a certain way will do it no matter what the law states. That is why every government since the dawn of time has had its hands full dealing with criminals.

Take for example driving. Go out on the high way and observe the speed of traffic. Observe your own driving habits. I think you will find on any normal day that your speed is determined more by the speed and flow traffic around you, the condition of the road that day, and the visibility. The speed you drive at is the speed that you as a responsible person who acts in your own rational self-interest determines is safe for you to drive at the given time. That speed seldom matches the number printed on the black trimmed side every so often on the side of the road. On a clear day with good road conditions and light flowing traffic, you may find yourself doing 15-20 over unless you’re paying careful attention to what you’re doing, at which point you may find that if you try to be a stickler, you end up putting yourself in more danger than if you just went with the flow. On a stormy or foggy day, you may find yourself doing 15-20 or more below. I’ve driven 15 miles an hour on the interstate before due to the weather conditions. People who act in their own rational self-interest will drive at a safe speed no matter what the limit is. People who do not act in their own rational self-interest, will not drive at a safe speed no matter what the limit is.

There are two forces that work to make a man disobey a law. The first force is that the thing which is forbidden is something he strongly desires. If he desires it strongly enough, he will defy the law in order to get it. Sure he may begrudgingly go along with the law for a while in order to avoid conflict, but if the desire is strong enough, he will find a way to pursue his desire sooner or later.

The second force is the desire to rebel. The Bible teaches that the desire to rebel is ingrained in all of us after the fall. Secular psychology will reject that notion. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you believe that it’s ingrained in every person in order to be able to observe that at least some people behave as though they want to rebel for the sake of rebellion. Sure this trait seems to show up most in young people, but that’s usually because older folks have learned the hard way that it’s probably better to try to avoid consequences.

When a man breaks a law, he has some combination of these two factors working within his heart. And when these factors work in a man’s heart to do what is forbidden, it matters not that it is forbidden. The law does not prevent him from doing it. Even when the entire force of a nation is sent out to try to stop an activity like drinking alcohol in the Prohibition Era, or smoking weed in the Drug War era. The evidence is overwhelming to those who will open their eyes and see it. Laws do not make people behave virtuously.

So even if we agree that our task in this world as Christians is to transform the culture around us, I think we should be willing to admit that using the power of the state is not an effective method to do so. Rather, the best way to go about doing this would be to inject virtue into the hearts of our friends, neighbors and families so they govern themselves. As believers, we do believe that we are all born devoid of virtue in our heart. We are born spiritually dead, and rebels against God and man. Thus, our task should be to reach out to people one at a time, through relationships, to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who will listen.

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