Laws are not absolute, but the rule of law should be

I broke the law yesterday.

I went out to grab some lunch and on the way I found myself going 38 miles per hour. The posted speed limit was 35. According to Section 257.627(16) of the Michigan Vehicle Code (Act 300 of 1949, as amended):

A person who violates a speed limit established under this section is responsible for a civil infraction.

I probably exceeded the 35 mph limit on the way home, too. Obviously, I’m a habitual offender of this law. I’m sorry.

There were no police officers observing my deviant behavior to issue the required civil infraction. But it’s likely that even if they had, they wouldn’t have stopped me. I wasn’t racing; I wasn’t weaving through traffic like I was in a Fast and Furious sequel; I was in full control of my vehicle. I was just a bit over the posted limit, and (most of the time) the police have more critical things to do than pull a driver over for that.

(I have been pulled over for speeding. Once. I was going 34 in a 25 mph zone. I honestly thought the speed limit was 35, though that’s not an excuse. Since I had no points on my record, the officer let me off with a warning.)

Another example: I was a high school football official for several years, primarily as an umpire, who is normally stationed behind the defensive line and is responsible for watching for holding by the interior linemen during a play. You may have heard that it’s possible to call holding on every play. In my experience, that’s true. It takes an incredible amount of discipline not to grab onto an opponent, especially if you think he’s starting to get around you. So there’s often holding on plays.

But I didn’t throw a flag on every play, and there’s not a coach or player who wanted me to. The rule says offensive linemen can’t close their hands on an opponent’s jersey or wrap their arms around them to restrain them. If it affects the outcome of the play, by opening a hole for a runner or preventing a defender from reaching the quarterback and allowing them to complete a pass, it has to be called. If it’s blatantly obvious, like one of the guards full-on tackling the oncoming rusher, it has to be called (even if it was away from the point of attack). But a bit of grabbing on a straight-ahead block generally won’t get called; a lot of the time the umpire can’t even see it if it’s done between the shoulders of the defender’s body.

This doesn’t mean that the rules of football, like speed limits, should be ignored. The rules are there to draw a “line in the sand.” While a few miles per hour over the limit will generally be tolerated by the police, going 55 in a residential neighborhood should get you pulled over, and at the least get you a “civil infraction” per Section 257.627(16). A bit of clutch and grab is hard to detect, but a WWE-style takedown of a linebacker will get a flag every time.

So laws and rules can be flexible. Our commitment to them, and our consent to live by them, can’t be. If I decide that traffic laws don’t apply to me, I become a danger to myself and to my community. If I determine that football’s laws are just restrictions on my freedom to play the game any way I choose, I no longer belong on the field. Laws and rules make society tenable. They keep the game fair for everyone. Rejecting them leads to chaos.

There are a lot of people today who no longer think that the rule of law applies to them. Their pick-and-choose attitudes toward laws (very supportive of the Second Amendment, for example, but not so much on public health policies such as masks or vaccines) have been abetted by our leaders. Instead of enforcing existing laws, we spend time negotiating and appeasing those who have rejected the concept of the common good, which is what the rule of law represents.

The recent disturbances in downtown Ottawa are an excellent example. Here’s a photo from Google Street Maps of Wellington Street, just in front of the Parliament building:

Parliament Building, Ottawa, September 2021 (source: Google Maps)
Parliament Building, Ottawa, September 2021 (source: Google Maps)

See that “No Stopping” sign? I’m pretty sure if I drove to Ottawa and just stopped my pickup truck at the spot in the picture, the Ottawa police would rather quickly show up and suggest that I move along. If I brought a few dozen of my pickup and semi-tractor driving friends along, it might complicate the issue, but the law itself wouldn’t change… just the authorities’ response to the situation we’ve created.

There’s now a debate over the Canadian government’s invoking of the Emergencies Act to resolve the three week long standoff in Ottawa, but it seems to me that the whole thing might not have escalated as it did if they’d simply enforced the existing law.

(As an aside, isn’t it impressive that Canadians still have such open access to their seat of government? That may change due to the events of that past few weeks, which is a shame.)

Sometimes governments are concerned that enforcing the law will make them seem repressive. If the laws themselves are repressive, they should be changed, but respecting the rule of law by enforcing them is not repression.

If you’re not willing to follow the rules when circumstances demand it, then what are the rules good for?