Free Life 35, January 2000, Editorial: When a right Becomes a Duty, by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 35, January 2000
ISSN: 0260 5112

Editorial: When a Right Becomes a Duty
by Sean Gabb

Since the 1st January 2000, it has been illegal in this country to offer any commodity for sale using the English system of weights and measurements. The penalties for disobedience vary from a fine, and perhaps confiscation of the measuring devices, to imprisonment. It is to show our contempt for this law, and our denial of its legitimacy, that we have moved our regular advertisement of goods offered in English measure to the front page.

Now, when I say "we", I must explain that I mean me as the Editor of Free Life, and Chris R. Tame as its Proprietor. I do not mean the Libertarian Alliance Ltd or any person who may be connected in any way with the Libertarian Alliance. If anyone is to suffer loss of personal or professional reputation as a result of breaking the law, it is to be the pair of us only. This very necessary disclaimer made, I will now explain why we are deliberately and openly breaking the law.

For a libertarian, and I suggest for most English conservatives, law derives its legitimacy from the extent to which it protects life and property. For us, the laws against theft and murder are to be obeyed not because they have been democratically agreed by the whole community, or because they have been made by some person or body to which we have an original duty of obedience. They are to be obeyed because what they prohibit is wrong, and would continue to be wrong in the absence of any law prohibiting them – and to the contrary of any law enjoining them.

From this, it follows that laws not based – however indirectly – on the protection of life and property have no binding force on the conscience, and may privately be broken as often as suits our convenience. Though it is illegal, therefore, to supply cannabis, or to have gay sex in hotel bedrooms, or to keep a handgun in one's bedside drawer, or to sell unpasteurised milk, or to lend money at interest without a licence from the State, such acts are not within the proper sphere of legal regulation; and anyone who tries a strict enforcement of the laws against them is upholding not justice but despotic power, and is to be seen not as the friend but as the common enemy of mankind.

Usually in the above formulation, we must insist on the adverb "privately". Some acts that should not be illegal may, even so, be regarded as absolutely impermissible by the majority. We need also to consider that many people have little or no independent sense of what is right or wrong. For them, laws are legitimate not according to their content, but simply because they are the law. In either case, to break unjust laws in public may be unwise. It may undermine respect for all laws whether just or unjust. Or it may provoke an extreme reaction. And so while private disobedience is both natural and reasonable, public disobedience requires careful thought about its likely consequences.

But where compulsory metrication is concerned, these considerations do not apply. In a sense, openness is inevitable. Advertising cheese only in pounds and ounces cannot reasonably be overlooked in the way that the Police now normally overlook the smoking of cannabis cigarettes. More importantly, we must disobey in public because what is being attacked is more than a private right. Undoubtedly, the imposition of grammes and millimetres is a further restriction on our right to buy and sell as we please. It is also an effect of special interest lobbying by the big retailers, who know that their smaller competitors cannot so easily afford the costs of compliance. Much more, though, it is part of a wider attack on the sense of identity that sustains all our freedoms. Odd it may sound, but there is a psychological connection between abolishing pounds and inches and abolishing Trial by Jury.

Let it be supposed that we still had a country in which English history was known and appreciated, and people lived in a continuity of customs and institutions inherited from the past: what would people then think of Corpus Juris? There would be an explosion of rage, and those politicians who had tried to accept it would be driven from office. But we live in a country where the authorities have long been at war with the past. Old associations have been stripped away. None but the middle aged can remember what it was like to live within unchanging county boundaries, or to work a sum in shillings and pence. The Prayer Book and English Bible have been turned into Newspeak. Within a few years, law students will need a dictionary to understand words like "plaintiff" and "writ". If our culture were in the middle of a rain forest, there would be a chorus of protests at its destruction. Instead, we are losing it largely in silence; and the loss of identity relaxes most prejudice against the abolition of freedom.

Resistance to compulsory metrication means taking a stand – not one, I grant, with much hope of success – against the wider forces of change. This is one of those occasions when the right to disobey becomes a duty.

Sean Gabb

© 2000 – 2017, seangabb.

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