The Law and Order Paradox
“Law and Order” is the antithesis of “Freedom and Democracy”
Those demanding law and order and those accepting it as a reasonable demand must fully understand what that means. In the immortal words (okay, paraphrase) of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”
The opposite of law and order would seem to be crime and anarchy. Crime is the opposite of law while anarchy the opposite of order. That would make law and order a safe political platform. Being opposed to law and order would mean being for crime and anarchy, and what politician would actually have a platform supporting crime and anarchy?
In fact, the opposite of law and order — when taken as a collective concept — is freedom and democracy. They are opposite ends of a continuum. At the law and order extreme are fascism and dictatorships.
In these systems, one or a small number of people create and enforce all the laws leading to minimal crime and little public unrest or turmoil. However, few citizens have real personal freedom and a say in the government or how it’s run.
At the freedom and democracy extreme of the continuum would be pure democracies. In these systems, there would be no laws or rules nor formalized means of enforcing social norms.
Everyone would be free to do their thing and everyone would have equal say in decisions affecting the population. The freedom and power of individuals would be complete — though some citizens exercising their freedom may infringe on the freedom of other citizens leading to unrest and turmoil.
Like most continuums, you don’t want to be at either extreme but rather find the sweet spot somewhere in between.
There isn’t a lot positive about a dictatorship or fascist regime, unless you’re in a position of power. The general population may have personal security and even equality and stability, but at the cost of nearly all freedom and sense of personal power. In addition, almost no one has any say over how the country is run.
A pure democracy may sound appealing. However, there need to be some rules and norms to protect citizens’ freedoms from other citizens. That will have the effect of limiting some freedoms.
There must also be a means of dealing with external threats. This requires security measures which, again, will limit freedoms. In addition, unless a country is very small, having every citizen weigh in on every national decision would be impossible, so a representative democracy is the typical alternative.
The United States was founded on the idea of freedom and democracy as a counter to the monarchy of Great Britain. Our founders wanted to find the sweet spot on the continuum. They cherished and wanted to protect individual liberties but understood there must still be some structure and organization. Toward that end, they created the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Our founders struggled to find the sweet spot. They recognized the danger of a too powerful federal government, so created a series of checks and balances. They expected citizens to wield greater control over state governments in order to ensure personal liberties. Thus, they strived to direct power to the states and away from the federal government.
Concurrently, the founders were aware ours would not be a country of freedom and democracy for everyone. The majority of people in America at the time — women, slaves, non-land owners — were not considered equal to land-owning men.
These “lesser-than” Americans would need some form of coercion to keep from revolting (as the founders had just done), while protecting individual freedoms to the greatest extent possible.
Consequently, our constitution and system of government are a compromise. At the time of our founding, it was not considered possible to grant everyone truly equal rights. This meant our country would function toward the law and order end of the continuum. The result is a reliance on coercion (laws and enforcement) significantly more than trusting citizens to act in the country’s best interest (personal freedom).
It may seem our country has moved toward personal freedom over the past 200+ years. Slaves were freed and granted full citizenship. Women and non-landowners were given the right to vote.
The Civil Rights act was passed along with numerous laws against discrimination. There are also laws and regulations against monopolies and meant to protect citizens from predatory businesses.
Despite these collective movements toward greater equality, we have actually moved on the continuum away from freedom and democracy and toward law and order. We have become ever more dependent on coercion to drive individuals’ actions rather than trusting in people’s values and their commitment to our country.
The evidence is in the almost unimaginable volumes of laws, rules, and regulations that exist from the local to federal level in our country. There are even people wanting to pass laws requiring schools to teach nationalism and American exceptionalism and outlawing speech and actions critical of our country. Consider the hypocrisy of requiring pronouncements of our incredible freedom and democracy.
There is also evidence in demands for cultural and societal change, nearly all of which amount to creation of new laws, rules, and regulations. Regardless of the intent of many of these laws — including some meant to ensure freedoms or non-discrimination and to place restrictions on those with law enforcement responsibilities — they almost all move us away from true freedom and democracy.
Our founders’ compromise actually worked pretty well. We have maintained our basic system of government and have the largest economy in the world. We continue to be one of the most influential countries in the world and arguably the most innovative. We have survived national and global catastrophes and crises.
But our reliance on coercion rather than personal freedom and responsibility has cost us. The most egregious events in our history stemmed from compromising freedom and democracy in exchange for law and order. This was true for, among other things, our government driving indigenous people off their lands, slavery, racial oppression, Japanese internment camps, McCarthyism, voter suppression, and countless civil rights abuses.
Now, in 2020, those on the political right are demanding enforcement of laws in response to violence, vandalism, looting, and other illegal activities associated with protests around the country as well as increases in crime in many large cities. Some on the political right are demanding new laws that protect monuments or increased penalties for protest-related crimes such as taking away the right to vote.
Those on the political left are demanding new laws putting restrictions on the police, their procedures, weapons and equipment they can use, warrants, among other things. They are also demanding police be arrested and charged for a number of their recent actions including shooting unarmed suspects.
Essentially, those on both the right and the left are calling for greater law and order. At the same time, they are both striving to exercise their freedoms by protesting and counter-protesting, though too many within their ranks are abusing those freedoms. Some are violating the rights of others through threats and physical violence, property damage, oppression, and character attacks.
That is the Law and Order Paradox. Law and order, collectively, is the antithesis of freedom and democracy.
The solution, the sweet spot along the continuum, is freedom and order. We should strive to achieve a society that maintains its sense of order through the exercise of personal freedom that does not infringe on the freedoms and rights of others.
Freedom and order is the version of society most envision when imaging the ideal America. That is what I believe our founders wanted. It was not possible in 1776 when the American Revolution began or 1789 when the Constitution was ratified. But I believe it is possible in the 21st Century.
It cannot happen overnight, but if that is the vision most Americans have for our country — if that is a reasonable society towards which we can all agree to work — then we can begin to heal our differences.
The biggest obstacle to beginning this shared journey is those who benefit from the current system’s reliance on law and order. Those who crave and have achieved positions of power — both on the right and the left — do not want to move toward freedom and democracy. They want to maintain control over elections and legislation. They benefit from a focus on law and order.
If you have been demanding law and order — or been quietly agreeing law and order is a reasonable response to our current national state of affairs — you need to consider if that is truly what you want. Or do you really want freedom and order? If the latter, then look how those in power are abusing law and order to remain in power and to divide our country. Consider how law and order are being used to maintain the status quo.
If you really want freedom and order, it’s time to stop attacking each other over ideologies and begin discovering how much we all have in common. Start dialogues about how we can exercise personal freedom to build a much more just and democratic country. Avoid being manipulated by false narratives about how law and order is necessary to avoid crime and anarchy. Yes, law and order can stop crime and anarchy, but the price is our personal liberty.
It doesn’t matter which party’s candidates win any election as both will benefit from and push for more laws and greater enforcement. They will have different priorities based on their ideologies, but the result is the same: more laws and enforcement; less freedom and democracy.
People in both groups want to be personally accountable for themselves but want the government to enforce accountability on others. Law and order make the government accountable for citizens’ behavior so citizens don’t have to be accountable for it themselves.
Over time, to preserve our country and maintain our standing as a beacon of hope for the world, we must severely reduce our reliance on laws and enforcement. That means building our commitment to personal responsibility so we can start repealing laws and ensure freedom and justice for all Americans. It also means ensuring true equity of opportunity for those Americans.
And how do we ensure true equity of opportunity? By citizens and our government committing to doing so and tackling it like other challenges our country has faced and overcome. And by doing so without regard to political parties or ideologies.
No party or individual has the answer, but collectively we can find solutions. That can’t happen until we are ready to truly work together for the sake of our country rather than a political party or ideology.
Personally, I would advocate for replacing all our office holders with independents — true independents who are not beholden to a political party or any organization. That would require voters to choose character and values over ideologies and platforms.
That would require those on the left and right to come together and find such people upon which they can agree and who are willing to serve. That would begin to neuter the political parties and the campaign finance machines.
And guess what? That can’t be legislated. It can’t be done through law and order. It can only be done through personal freedom and leveraging democracy. If you really want more freedom and democracy, then you must demand less law and order. Then make a commitment to personal responsibility as we strive toward the freedom and order sweet spot.
A Boomer who joined the Army during the Cold War and continues to serve. Kevin spent 30-plus years working in K-12 education as a teacher, administrator, and consultant. His book, Know Power, Know Responsibility, provides the imperatives for a complete redesign of schools and the way to get there.