Two Views of Law . . .

(Ed. note: As usual, these comments are directed towards those in more developed
economies where paying is effectively possible.)

Reading my emails, I get the definite impression there are two views of law.

  • Law as being an expression of moral values.
  • Law as rules enforced upon you through fear of punishment.

    You are in a music store. There’s a CD you really want, but don’t have the money for. What do you do?

    If you don’t take it because you believe stealing is wrong, you belong to the first camp. If you don’t take it
    because the security measures make it likely you’ll get caught taking it, you belong to the second.

    No doubt most people could fall into either camp depending on the circumstances and the particular law. There is a moral basis for a red light on a busy interchange, but that
    basis dwindles when there isn’t another moving car anywhere near that light.

    However, in general, a society is better off when its members internalize laws as part of their moral values rather than having laws shoved down their throats. If for no other reason, the society has to spend much less money enforcing the laws.

    If you lived in a neighborhood where no one has been murdered or robbed for ten years, you don’t want or need a cop on every corner. There are better uses for the money.

    On the other hand, if murders and robberies are a daily occurence, you’ll be happy to forego other services to get that cop. The only public service the dead use is the morgue.

    Now which is the better neighborhood to live in?

    Let’s assume the second neighborhood does get a cop on every corner. Would that make a difference, or would you now dislike police all over the place?

    If Force Is All You Understand, That’s All You’ll Get

    If you will not obey the law until you are made to, you will be made to, and on the whole, that will be a lot more oppressive and expensive than if you did it on your own. Force costs money.

    Even the highest-crime area doesn’t consist solely of criminals. If a neighborhood is so unlawful that blanket police protection is necessary, the law-abiding have to live with the problems associated with that, too.

    Now if criminals walked around with a big sign saying, “I am a criminal, watch me!” this would make life a whole lot easier for the law-abiding, but don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen.

    We have been living in a high-crime neighborhood for a long time. Now the cops are moving in, and that’s going to inconvenience all of us, one way or the other. There’s no magic bullet here.

    Honesty Is The Cheapest Policy

    If you are dealing with a honest, trustworthy man, you have to do very little to get him to keep his word. Believe it or not, there was and is a ton of business being done based on a handshake. Handshakes are very cheap.

    However, once you decide to breach that trust, you may make out the first time, or the first couple times, but after that, if people even decide to deal with you, out comes the lawyers and the contracts forcing you to comply or else. Much more expensive than a handshake, both for you and anyone else you deal with.

    The Golden Rule is not some antiquated religious belief.

    The Golden Rule is practically an iron law of human behavior, and since enforcement as it pertains to you is completely out of your hands, you can’t stop it. You can’t turn it on and off to suit you.

    It is one of the most valuable practical guides to human relationships. Abandon that for a momentary advantage, and you take on some heavy long-term baggage, whether you like it or not.

    Either you pay a heavy price dealing with people who no longer trust you, or you spend all your time and effort avoiding its application.

    For years, a good chunk of the computer community abused that trust. Now everybody in that neighborhood is going to pay for it.


    Believe it or not, I do not confuse Bill Gates with Mother Teresa.

    Let’s say somebody punched me in the face. I have the perfect right to call the police and have him arrested for assault. That does not give me the right to rob his house.

    There are plenty of things Microsoft does that I don’t like, but that’s why we have laws and a legal process. Laws and legal procedure are the basis of any civilized society.

    General Moral Principles Don’t Sanctify Every Little Detail

    I’ve been saying that as a general principle, MS (or any other software company) has a right to be paid.

    That doesn’t mean every little detail of the EULA has the moral authority of the Ten Commandments, and is as immutable.

    There are many laws that enunciate a general moral principle, but the specific details are hardly sacrosanct.

    Take tax law, for instance. There’s a general moral principle that those governed should pay for government, but just how and how much is a very arguable point.

    You can make a strong moral argument against the rich being taxed at 95%. You can make an equally strong argument against them being taxed at 0%. There is no compelling moral argument when it gets down to either 35% or 40%.

    MS at one point didn’t insist on “one OS copy, one machine.” Now it does. Neither stance represents pure virtue.

    The price for MS products have tended to go up over time, contrary to the general trend of more physical computer components. While there are arguments in MS’s favor, it’s at least arguable that some of that is due to MS being an effective monopoly.

    Some of you pointed out that software companies have another monopoly too, a monopoly on the ear of Congress. This is a very good point.

    What is not a good point is that this justifies vigilantism.

    At least the United States is not some dictatorship. If it were, then how could MS be getting sued at all?

    If you wish the laws changed, you have the right to seek redress through your representatives. You can say one letter means nothing, and you’re probably right, but that doesn’t justify stealing; that justifies better organization.

    Looking down the road (and I think it a long one), I think breaking up MS is a silly thing to do because it doesn’t solve the core problem. MS’s crown jewel and the key to any monopoly control is the OS, and just how do you break up an OS? It’s a natural monopoly.

    In those kinds of cases, what you do is not break up the monopoly, but regulate it. Government has the right to do that. Now just how is arguable; there are good ways and bad ways to do that.

    In general, more open access to and licensing of the OS seems better than more heavy-handed government dictation of what MS can and cannot do.

    That’s the right way. That’s the legal way.

    Why Do I Keep Carrying On About This?

    There’s two reasons.

    I’m actually not very concerned about MS per se. To me, they’re just a symbol of a bigger problem (and a fairly smudged one at that). They can certainly take care of themselves, and then some.

    What bothers me much more is this lack of respect for law, the belief that you are your own law, and that actions don’t have consequences. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is barbarism, pure and simple.

    Now if you’re fifteen years old and believe that, this is less disturbing than if you’re over thirty, but even if you’re fifteen, you ought to hear that this doesn’t work too well in the long-term in real life, neither for the society, nor, eventually, you. This brings me to my second reason.

    I saw a great signature the other day, which went something like this:

    “One man can learn from reading about it. A few learn from observing. The rest of us just have to piss on the electric fence.”

    Now MS may not have electrified this fence, but if the approach and underlying attitudes I commonly see are SOP, it’s just a matter of time before those people hit some wired wire.

    Criminologists have long known that one of the biggest factors in the crime rate is the proportion of young men in the population. More young men, more crime. Fewer young men, less crime.

    If you don’t believe that, when was the last time you heard of a Grandma crime wave?

    That’s because young men often believe they know it all, then proceed to piss on electric fences. They fight the law, and the law wins.

    If fewer young men end up pissing on that fence because of what I say, it’s worth it.

    Email Ed

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