A few years ago, my wife and I were hosts to two school administrators from Uruguay, South America. Our guests were amazed at the burgeoning economy of the United States and the fact that two school teachers like ourselves could live in a comfortable house and be the owners of two automobiles. In their homeland, on a principal’s salary of $200 U.S. per month, such high living was beyond their wildest dreams.
One day as we were driving through the city, I stopped at a stop sign, even though there was no apparent cross-traffic in sight. One of the South Americans commented that we Americans are sure hung up on law. “Why would you stop at a stop sign when you know there are no cars coming? In my country we might slow down at such an intersection but if there was no cross-traffic we would just keep right on going in spite of a stop sign or traffic signal. What a waste of time!”
His comment brought to mind a story I heard about a young boy who was being taught by his father to fly a kite. As the kite caught the wind and mounted higher and higher, the boy excitedly instructed his dad to let out more string. “Let it go higher!” he yelled. When his father had let out all the string there was, his son appealed to his dad to let go of the string so the kite could go even higher.
The boy’s father patiently explained to the boy that if he let go of the string the kite would fall. “Sometimes,” the father explained, “the very thing that holds us down is really what holds us up.”
Can you imagine the chaos that would exist in any country if there were no laws governing traffic or if everyone totally disregarded the laws and customs regulating traffic? Under such conditions, nobody would be truly free to go anywhere. Citizens would take their lives in their hands every time they backed out of the driveway and everyone would be seriously hindered in getting from hither to yon.
But wouldn’t the absence of law make us truly free?
John Locke said, “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law. The mission of the law…is to protect persons and property.”
Frederic Bastiat expanded on this when he proclaimed, “It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.”
As I have studied the biographies and autobiographies of my forebearers, I have concluded that they held some basic beliefs about law and conduct that we would do well to emulate if we are to endure as a free people. Ezra Taft Benson, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, said it better than I can:
“They believed in the dignity of work; that the world owes no man a living; that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
“They believed in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that these are inalienable rights.
“They believed that we cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
“They believed that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
“They believed in the sacredness of a promise and that character, not wealth, power or position, is of supreme worth to individuals and nations.
“They believed that every right implies a responsibility; that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people, not their master.
“They believed that we cannot produce prosperity by discouraging thrift. We cannot establish security on borrowed money.
“They believed that we cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could do and should do for themselves.
“They believed that rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind. They believed that love alone can overcome hate.”
However outmoded some of these principles may be considered today, they are nonetheless enduring truths. When we face the argument, “times are different,” may we have the wisdom to recognize that truth never changes.
I propose that we hang on to that kite string and look to the security of civil law, which, if thoughtfully legislated and properly applied, provides us with sound social order. And, with the blessings of The Almighty, we will get through difficult times.