Law and Order (And When They Diverge)

We tend to think of law and order as a unit – two sides of the same coin. After all, nation-states have plenty of incentives to ensure a robust legal framework, and many of those incentives revolve around orderly movement of the population. Want to set up a new business? Sounds good – but you can’t set it up on someone else’s land, or sell tainted products, or use slave labor. You follow the laws so that society stays orderly.

But sometimes, the law actually puts up a barrier between chaos and order – and keeps the population on the side of chaos. That’s not always a bad thing. For example, from the perspective of societies, free speech is a chaotic right. The ability to spread ideas, quickly and without undue interference, adds to unpredictability.

But other forces of chaos are less benign, even from the individual’s point of view. Laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law (like free speech laws) shield individuals from certain forms of prosecution.

This is why we need to be careful when guaranteeing rights. Individual freedom is, most of the time, something that is worthy of maximization. But there are times when a guaranteed right has the potential to infringe on others’ rights – and in these cases, the rights that are guaranteed by law will take precedence.

In the case of Stand Your Ground laws, the guarantee rests on a profoundly subjective moment – the moment in which one person feels in danger. One wonders how “reasonable” this feeling must be. If I feel in danger of my life when surrounded by strangers, at what point am I justified in opening fire? When someone approaches me? When someone behaves aggressively toward me? Where does my right to feel secure (a subjective case) override another’s right to remain alive (an objective case if ever there were one)?

I’m not against freedoms. But I feel for those who don’t desire more chaos in an already chaotic world. The net amount of freedom in the world seems lessened by laws that depend on subjective feelings and which can override objective states. Chaos seems to win. In many ways, laws like Florida’s lessen the ideal of “rule of law,” which seems antithetical to the act of legislating.

We want freedom in our lives, but we also want a world in which we can predictably know what objective things we are guaranteed. When our lives can be legally overruled by someone else’s feelings, then we are subject to a serious uncertainty. In any case, our legislatures must be sure to balance what is known against what is merely felt.

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