Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why the rule of law matters

Thomas Sowell explains why we should care that BP was pressured by the President to put its money into an escrow fund administered by the President's hand-picked administrator. It's not because we hold any brief for BP or don't think that BP should compensate those harmed by the oil spill. But it matters in our country how things are done. The end does not justify the means. And the means should be lawful, not just to protect BP but to protect all of us.
Just where in the Constitution of the United States does it say that a president has the authority to extract vast sums of money from a private enterprise and distribute it as he sees fit to whomever he deems worthy of compensation? Nowhere.

And yet that is precisely what is happening with a $20 billion fund to be provided by BP to compensate people harmed by their oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Many among the public and in the media may think that the issue is simply whether BP's oil spill has damaged many people, who ought to be compensated. But our government is supposed to be "a government of laws and not of men." If our laws and our institutions determine that BP ought to pay $20 billion-- or $50 billion or $100 billion-- then so be it.

But the Constitution says that private property is not to be confiscated by the government without "due process of law." Technically, it has not been confiscated by Barack Obama, but that is a distinction without a difference.

With vastly expanded powers of government available at the discretion of politicians and bureaucrats, private individuals and organizations can be forced into accepting the imposition of powers that were never granted to the government by the Constitution.

If you believe that the end justifies the means, then you don't believe in Constitutional government. And, without Constitutional government, freedom cannot endure. There will always be a "crisis"-- which, as the president's chief of staff has said, cannot be allowed to "go to waste" as an opportunity to expand the government's power.

That power will of course not be confined to BP or to the particular period of crisis that gave rise to the use of that power, much less to the particular issues.
You don't need to resort to the history of Hitler, as Sowell does, to understand why the rule of law matters. I'd go to the magnificent lines that the playwright Robert Bolt gave to Sir Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons as More explains to his son-in-law William Roper the importance of following man's laws rather than trying to discern God's ideals and act according to those.
Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down — and you're just the man to do it — d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.
Tony Hayward and BP may not quite be the Devil, but they still deserve the protection of the rule of law. We have laws about corporate liability and just because you think that there is some higher cause of getting money to help people doesn't mean that we should brush those laws aside. It is ironic that the same administration that is so sanctimonious in claiming the rule of law to protect the planner of 9/11 doesn't have the same concern for BP.