The preamble to law

Kiddo#2 has me singing the preamble to the US Constitution (ala Schoolhouse Rock) because she has to memorize it for school.

This morning I was biking into the next town while trying the “sing test” and concluded that I can sing…for about five seconds…then gasp…but not very loud…  I don’t know what that means, but they say if you’re working out properly, you shouldn’t be able to sing, and unfortunately (sigh, my Patient Husband can verify this) I actually can’t sing even if I’m not working out properly. Or at all. So it’s hard to tell.

Regardless, there I was biking and huffing the words to the preamble to the Constitution because it’s my duty as an American mother, and I remembered a previous conversation with Kiddo#2 about the government. She had to study the branches of the government and was asking questions about the balance of power.

I tossed her a question posed to me by my friend Michael back in college. (If he’s reading here still, I’ve thought about that question a lot in the past years, thank you.)  The question was this: is the purpose of government to make people be good, or to keep people from being bad?

My first response had been that it should make people be good, because we certainly have laws like that (tax breaks for donating to charity, for example) but most laws are negative laws, written to keep people from being bad (not driving over badly-singing bicyclists with your car, just to pull an example out of my helmet) and I think that’s how we left it.

My current take is different, though. If asked right now, I’d say the purpose of the law is to protect the weak from the strong.

That’s how it boils down, right? If the world were lawless, then those with strength and no scruples would take whatever they wanted: your possessions, your property, your body.

But when a group of people agrees to live together as a society, we make certain basic standards of behavior we expect in order to enjoy the benefits of living in the collective. That’s the preamble to sets of laws. For example, you in your car are stronger than the out-of-tune bicyclist, and therefore the law sides with the bicyclist: you may not run over her. If you do, then the law makes provision to remove you from the benefits of living in the collective.

But now I ask myself: do the laws of the United States protect the weak from the strong?

The answer I find is, in many cases, no.

And if that’s really true, then have we failed as a country?


  1. Sara Ann Denson

    I don’t know… My husband and I chose to live in a house well below our means because we want to have a paid for house. We live in the cheapest neighborhood in town and know lots of people who would qualify as “weak”. I personally know plenty of people on food stamps who have cable TV and a well-stocked liquor cabinet. Many, both white poor and black poor, really believe in themselves as victims: victims of the system, bad parenting, addictions… They don’t see a reason to try. Certainly, the strong could take advantage of that, but it is also the strong who stock the food pantry and hand out Sal Army Christmas presents. It’s the strong who sign up to serve as mentors to underprivedged kids. I, unfortunately, think we need laws to protect the weak from themselves. The strong take advantage of programs, both private and government, that enable them to rise above “victim”. And the strong turn around and give back.

    1. philangelus

      The current tax structure seems to favor the strong over the weak, which doesn’t seem fair to me. That’s the one that comes immediately to mind.

      I definitely believe in stocking the food pantry and donating warm clothing to the homeless. We do both on a regular basis. But the government doesn’t mandate that; it does mandate not snatching the hat off the head of a homeless man just because you like the hat.

      I know there are abuses of the system, but that’s a failure of the government to properly monitor the help it hands out.

  2. Pat

    But it’s not just the law,as in what legislatures write, that protects the weak from the strong. It’s the force of social pressure, as well. Without that, the laws would not only be worthless, they probably wouldn’t even exist.

    That is, it’s not just some power from on high telling drivers not to run over cyclists. The law forbidding that codifies the sense that everyone has anyway; if we didn’t have that sense, we wouldn’t have that law.

    Neither system, social pressure or codified law, works perfectly. But we’re a darn sight better off with the imperfect versions we have than we’d be without them. If the imperfection means we’ve “failed as a country,” we’re in good company, because no other country does it better, and many do it much worse.

  3. Cricket

    To get the victims off welfare and such, we need to do more than monitor their spending and create jobs. We need to find out what’s holding them back. Part of it is finances and experience and education. Part of it is something blocking them. The wealthy have the good fortune to have more good early experiences, but also the funds to pay for life coaching or psychotherapy or anti-depressants or therapeutic touch or energy-balancing. They are more likely to do what it takes to find what is really blocking them and deal with it — to get back to their best self — rather than accept that they can’t be unblocked because the first few attempts don’t work.

  4. Cricket

    Laws also help people work together. It doesn’t matter whether everyone drives on the left or the right — but we have to agree.

    The local downtown business association is starting their annual whine that no one shops there. There’s a reason I don’t take the kids. By the time we have supper (in a downtown restaurant), we have 20 minutes before the stores close. The alternatives? Race through supper and drag rushed kids through stores. Take hungry kids to the stores. Go to the mall, shop some, have a snack, shop more.

    One or two stores with longer hours (which means, horrors, doing what the big stores do — extra hours and extra staff), won’t get us downtown. We need enough that we can get most of our shopping done. The only way that will happen is if the association agrees to standard hours. If I know I have till 7 to finish, it’s worth the trip. One open till 6:30 and another till 7:30 means we have to know and plan. Won’t happen.

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