1st February 2017
This blog presents a modern allegory (with apologies to Lon Fuller).
In Lon Fuller’s 1969 book The Morality of Law, Fuller set out the story of King Rex, as a cautionary tale of the need for clarity, consistency and predictability within legal systems. Profoundly influenced by the horrors of the 20th Century, in particular the Nazi regime in Germany and the Stalinist regime in the USSR, Fuller desired to establish certain benchmarks for legal systems based on his view of the “inner morality of the law.” Fuller argued that the inner morality of a legal system was based first on the morality of duty (the duty to provide basic rules for the ordering of society) and then the morality of aspiration (the aspiration of excellence within a legal system). Surprisingly little of Lon Fuller’s account of King Rex needs to be changed to fairly accurately reflect the start of President Trump’s administration…
So, as Fuller might have written: This story concerns the unhappy reign of a monarch who bore the convenient, but not very imaginative and not even very regal sounding name of Tex.
Eight Ways to Fail to Make Law
Tex came to the throne with the zeal of a reformer. He considered that the greatest failure of his predecessors had been in the field of law. For generations the legal system had known nothing like a basic reform. Procedures of trial were cumbersome, the rules of law spoke in the archaic tongue of another age, justice was expensive, the judges were slovenly and sometimes corrupt. Tex was resolved to remedy all this and to make his name in history as a great lawgiver. It was his unhappy fate to fail in this ambition. Indeed, he failed spectacularly, since not only did he not succeed in introducing the needed reforms, but he never even succeeded in creating any law at all, good or bad.
His first official act was, however, dramatic and propitious. Since he needed a clean slate on which to write, he announced to his subjects the immediate repeal of all existing law, of whatever kind. He then set about drafting a new code. Unfortunately, trained as a lonely property developer, his education had been very defective. In particular, he found himself incapable of making even the simplest generalisations. Though not lacking in confidence when it came to deciding specific controversies, the effort to give articulate reasons for any conclusion strained his capacities to the breaking point.
Becoming aware of his limitations, Tex gave up the project of a code and announced to his subjects that henceforth he would act as a judge via Twitter in any disputes that might arise among them. In this way under the stimulus of a variety of cases he hoped that his latent powers of generalisation might develop and, proceeding case by case, he would gradually work out a system of rules that could be incorporated in a code. Unfortunately the defects in his education were more deep-seated than he had supposed. The venture failed completely. After he had handed down literally hundreds of fabulous decisions within the confines of 140 characters neither he nor his subjects could detect in those decisions any pattern whatsoever. Such tentatives toward generalisation as were to be found in his opinions only compounded the confusion, for they gave false leads and alternative facts to his subjects and threw his own meagre powers of judgment off balance in the decision of later cases.
After this fiasco Tex realised it was necessary to take a fresh start. His first move was to subscribe to a course of lessons in generalisation. With his intellectual powers thus fortified, he resumed the project of a code and, after many hours of solitary labour, succeeded in preparing a fairly lengthy Executive Order. He was still not confident, however, that he had fully overcome his previous defects. Accordingly, he announced to his subjects on Twitter that he had written out a GREAT CODE and would henceforth be governed by it in deciding cases, but that for an indefinite future the contents of the code would remain an official state secret, known only to him and his family. To Tex’s surprise this sensible plan was deeply resented by his subjects, who took to the streets in their thousands to protest. They declared it was very unpleasant to have one’s case decided by rules when there was no way of knowing what those rules were.
Stunned by this rejection, Tex undertook an earnest inventory of his personal strengths (which were legion) and weaknesses (of which he had none). He decided that life had taught him one clear lesson, namely, that it is easier to decide things with the aid of hindsight and by reflecting on the good old days than it is to attempt to foresee and control the future. Not only did hindsight make it easier to decide cases, but – and this was of supreme importance to Tex – it made it easier to give reasons. Deciding to capitalise on this insight, Tex hit on the following plan. At the beginning of each calender year he would decide all the controversies that had arisen among his subjects during the preceding year. He would accompany his decisions with a full statement of reasons. Naturally, the reasons thus given would be understood as not controlling decisions in future years, for that would be to defeat the whole purpose of the new arrangement, which was to gain the advantages of hindsight. Tex confidently announced the new plan to his subjects over Twitter at 3am, observing that he was going to publish the full text of his judgements with the rules applied by him, thus meeting the chief objection to the old plan. Tex’s subjects received this announcement in silence, then quietly explained through their more enlightened democratic representatives that when they said they needed to know the rules, they meant they needed to know them in advance so they could act on them. Tex muttered something to the effect that they might have made that point a little clearer, but said he would see what could be done.
Tex now realised that there was no escape from a published code declaring the rules to be applied in future disputes. Continuing his lessons in generalisation, Tex worked diligently on a revised GREATER CODE, and finally Tweeted that it would shortly be published. This announcement was received with universal gratification. The dismay of Tex’s subjects was all the more intense, therefore, when his code became available and it was discovered that it was truly a masterpiece of obscurity. Legal experts who studied it declared that there was not a single sentence in it that could be understood either by an ordinary citizen or by a trained lawyer. Indignational became general; and soon a protest appeared before Tex’s gaudy palace of gold carrying signs that read, “How can anybody follow discriminatory immigration rules that nobody can understand?”
The GREATER CODE was quickly withdrawn. Reluctantly recognising for the first time that he needed assistance, Tex put a staff of experts who he hadn’t purged to work on a revision. He instructed them to leave the substance untouched, but to clarify the expression throughout. The resulting GREATEST CODE was a model of clarity, but as it was studied it became apparent that its new clarity had merely brought to light that it was honeycombed with contradictions. It was reliably reported by respected journalists that there was not a single provision in the code that was not nullified by another provision inconsistent with it. An even larger protest appeared before the golden palace, carrying signs that read, “This time the king made himself clear – in both directions.”
Once again the code was withdrawn for revision. By now, however, Tex had lost patience with his subjects and the negative attidude they seemed to adopt toward everything he tried to do for them. He decided to teach them a lesson and put an end to their carping. He instructed his remaining experts to purge the code of contradictions, but at the same time to stiffen drastically every requirement contained in it and to add a long list of new crimes such as practicing a different religion or being an immigrant. Thus, where before individuals summoned to the throne were given ten days in which to report, in the revision the time was cut to ten seconds. It was made a crime, punishable by ten years imprisonment to cough, sneeze, hiccough, faint or fall down in the presence of the king (he stressed that he was a germaphobe). It was made treason not to understand, believe in, and correctly profess that fossil fuels and human activity have no impact on climate change whatsoever.
When this GREATEST EVER CODE was sent out on Twitter a near revolution resulted. Leading citizens declared their intention to flout its provisions. Someone discovered in an ancient author a passage that seemed apt: “To command what cannot be done is not to make law: it is to unmake law, for a command that cannot be obeyed serves no end but confusion, fear and chaos.” Soon this passage was being quoted in a hundred petitions to the king.
The code was again withdrawn and a staff of experts chaired with the task of revision. Tex’s instructions to the experts were that whenever they encountered a rule requiring an impossibility, it should be revised to make compliance possible. It turned out that to accomplish this result every provision in the code had to be substantially rewritten. The final result was, however, a triumph of draftsmanship. It was clear, consistent with itself, and demanded nothing of the subject that did not lie easily within their powers. It was printed and distributed free of charge through social media.
However, before the effective date for the new GREATEST EVER CODE, REALLY had arrived, it was discovered that so much time had been spent in successive revisions of Tex’s original draft, that the substance of the code had been seriously overtaken by events. Ever since Tex assumed the throne there had been a suspension of ordinary legal processes and this had brought about a climate of uncertainty for the economy and institutions of the country. Accommodation to these altered conditions required many changes of substance in the law. Accordingly as soon as the new code became legally effective, it was subjected to a daily stream of amendments. Again popular discontent mounted; an anonymous blog appeared online carrying scurrilous cartoons of the king and a leading article with the title: “A law that changes every day is worse than no law at all.”
Within a short time this source of discontent began to cure itself as the pace of amendment gradually slackened. Before this had occurred to any noticeable degree, however, Tex announced an important decision. Reflecting on the misadventures of his reign, he concluded that much of the trouble lay in bad advice he had received from experts. He accordingly declared he was reassuming the judicial power in his own person. In this way he could directly control the application of the new code and insure his country against another crisis. He began to spend practically all of his time hearing and deciding cases arising under the new code.
As the king proceeded with this task, it seemed to bring a belated blossoming his long dormant powers of generalisation. His opinions began, indeed, to reveal a confident and almost exuberant virtuosity as he deftly distinguished his own previous decisions, exposed the principles on which he acted, and laid down guidelines for the disposition of future controversies. For Tex’s subjects a new day seemed about to dawn when they could finally conform their conduct to a coherent body of rules.
This hope was, however, soon shattered. As the online record of Tex’s judgments became available and were subjected to closer study, his subjects were appalled to discover that there existed no discernible relation between those judgments and the code they purported to apply. Insofar as it found expression in the actual disposition of controversies, the new code might just as well have not existed at all. Yet in virtually every one of his decisions Tex declared and redeclared the code to be the basic law of his kingdom.
Leading citizens from all walks of life began to hold private meetings to discuss what measures, short of open revolt, could be taken to get the king away from the bench and back on the throne. While these discussions were going on, Tex was impeached for nepotism and conflict of interests, old before his time and deeply unloved by his subjects.
The first act of his successor, President Hex, was to abolish the monarchy and introduce genuine democracy and the rule of law based on the values of non-discrimination and accountability of elected officials.
Coda: During their famous debates in the 1950s over the legality of the Nazi regime and so-called grudge informers, Lon Fuller and HLA Hart disagreed on the role of morality and the law. Hart was swift to point out that Fuller’s concept of the inner morality of the law, and his eight principles of legality, could actually uphold unjust laws. Hart argued that Fuller’s procedural natural law approach failed to engage with the substantive morality of flawed laws, as a legal system may be structurally sound yet still allow unjust laws. Fuller meanwhile countered that when people are ‘compelled to explain and justify their decisions, the effect will generally be to pull those decisions towards goodness…’ Both Hart and Fuller’s arguments have resonance today. The cautionary tale of King Rex was based on some of the most brutal regimes in history. One can only hope that these warnings are heeded over the next four years.