By Jason Michael
If the law is intended to protect people then, we might ask, why is it that we live in a society where the rule of law makes it possible for workers’ labour to be stolen and for people to die on the streets? Maybe the law isn’t what it appears to be.
Most people will happily agree that society, in order for it to function, has to have a number of ground rules that people have to obey. If you have ever shared a house with another person you’ll know that some level of agreement – implicit or explicit – is needed to stop the situation sooner or later descending into a homicide charge. Society is like a bigger house share, with millions of very different people trying to get by in a shared space with limited resources. Without everything becoming Lord of the Flies some basic rules help. Yet the laws that govern society are a fair bit more complex and few of us ever get a say in deciding what they should regulate.
A Google search looking the “purpose of the law” – because we all know Google knows best – gives and interesting answer. The top result comes from no less an authority than Capitalism.org and it states that the “rule of law has only one purpose: to protect the rights of the smallest minority that has ever existed — the individual.” Such a definition has a huge surplus of meaning and will require some considerable unpacking. The statement that the rule of law has the singular purpose of protecting the rights of the individual is concept rich; the reader is confronted with the rule of law, legal protection, the entire philosophical discussion of rights, and the idea of the individual.
It is simply too ambitious to hope to address all of these ideas in a short blog post, so we will limit ourselves to a reflection on one question: If the law is about protecting the rights of the individual, then why is it legal to have an economic system that endangers human lives? The paradox is that we live under the rule of a legal system that, in the course of protecting the rights of the individual, suffers workers to be paid less money for their labour than is reasonably required to enjoy an adequate standard of living, substandard health care, and even homelessness.
Underpaid workers, the sick, and the poor are all individuals and yet within the capitalist free market system the law, it seems, conspires to rob them of all and any protections. Surely then the definition offered by Capitalism.org should make capitalism itself illegal, as a threat to the rights of the individual? Not quite. It turns out that few of these fine words mean what we think they mean. As the term “rule of law” implies, there is a relationship between the law and power; those in power – the ruling class – as the lawmakers, write the law and so have a monopoly on its vocabulary.
Unit of Labour (@UnitOfLabour) November 02, 2016
Nowhere in the capitalist world is the law intended to protect human beings qua persons with certain inalienable rights. Where such rights are protected they are protected not on the basis of the essential rights of people to the necessities of life, but rather on the basis of the requirements of the capitalist economy – the god and chief arbiter of capitalist justice. The “individual” is not anywhere synonymous with “human being.” Had this be so, capitalism would not be possible. An individual is a person who owns property who, by virtue of their ownership of private property, has the right to be protected simply because the power to write law is itself the prerogative of the ruling class qua propertied class.
It is for exactly this reason that the worker who does not him or herself own the means of production can be legally paid less than the value of his or her labour and be legally barred from seizing control of those means. The property of the individual as owner is protected by the law – as is his or her right. The same is true of the sick and the poor. So long as their basic requirements for life are at odds with the right of the owners to own then the purpose of the law is not to protect their lives and well-beings. Answering the question, then, the purpose of the law is to protect the rights of the powerful to dominate and exploit the powerless. This is the rule of law.
Should You Obey the Law? – Philosophy Tube
Author: Jason Michael (@Jeggit)