Thursday, January 25, 2007

Personal Responsibility and Rule of Law

As I've noted a couple of times, Andrew Sullivan asserts that, "[R]ational thought... is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law."[1]

There can be no better test of whether these principles are both rational and fundamental than the case of Genarlow Wilson, a seventeen year-old young man sentenced to ten years in prison without the possibility of parole for engaging in consensual oral sex with his fifteen year-old girlfriend. [2] (h/t to Lawyers, Guns and Money)

No one in this case, judge, jury, or prosecution, believes at any moral level that Wilson's behavior deserves this level of punishment. Even the state legislature has amended the statute under which Wilson was convicted to make his actions a misdemeanor. (Curiously, they explicitly did not make the change retroactive. [3])

If one truly believes that the notions of personal responsibility and rule of law are fundamental and rational, one cannot come to any conclusion other than that Wilson's sentence is unquestionably deserved, that it would be a gross violation of these fundamental principles to pardon Wilson. One cannot come to any conclusion other than that we should not only not wring our hands and "regret" the "moral" injury Wilson faces, but we must rather declare that any other "moral" notion is irrelevant and actively rejoice that these fundamental principles are being unequivocally upheld, and we should rejoice in exactly the same way, for instance, as we rejoiced that these selfsame principles were upheld by the arrest, conviction, and execution of Timothy McVeigh and life imprisonment of Terry Nichols.[4]

There's no logical wiggle room. There is no doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that Wilson did indeed perform the acts for which he was convicted. The statute under which he was convicted is explicit and unequivocal in its penalty. There is absolutely no possibility of substantiating any error anywhere--investigation, prosecution, trial, or sentencing--which might justify a pardon under the principles of personal responsibility and rule of law. [5]

Wilson broke the law, the law prescribes an exact penalty, and this seventeen year-old young man will have to take personal responsibility and serve every day of the those ten years in prison. Period. No one who calls himself a conservative in the Sullivan mold could say otherwise without making a complete mockery of his fundamental beliefs.

Of course, to any sane and caring person, it's obvious that these principles, while important tools, are not "fundamental" to anything. The fundamental principle of liberalism is human well-being: sensibility and sometimes mercy above deterministic punishment, moral justice above legal justice. Personal responsibility and the rule of law[6] are useful and important tools, to be used where appropriate to achieve human well-being and moral justice, but the tools themselves are not objects of idolatrous worship.

Perhaps Andrew Sullivan will wake up one day and realize he's the liberal I believe he truly is[7], rather than stubbornly trying one failed justification and idiosyncratic definition after the next to support and defend conservatism, which in real life has never been about anything more principled than more-or-less covert authoritarianism in the service of fuck-you-I've-got-mine-Jack material self-interest. [8]

[1] Vive La Resistance, 15 Jan 2007

[2] Wilson is black and the "victim" is white. But race doesn't have anything to do with this case. Not in Georgia of all places.

[3] See [2]

[4] One might even argue that under these fundamental principles we should condemn McVeigh and Nichols not for killing 168 people, including several small children, but rather for breaking the law.

[5] The idea that it falls within the "rule of law" for a governor to pardon anyone for anything is a trivially specious and absurd argument that obviously makes the principle of "rule of law" entirely vacuous.

[6] Especially in the completely uncontroversial sense that the people in a society under a government are best served by expressing their cooperative interests through the agency of objectively defined laws rather than arbitrary personal authority.

[7] I give Sullivan a hard time precisely because I think that deep down he's really a liberal, and is thus worth "saving". And despite the fact that he infuriates me almost every time I read him, I just can't help but somehow like the guy.

[8] I'm no Utopian socialist; at a certain level I think society is enriched by the tension between liberalism and conservatism (and I usually prefer pulling on the left end of the rope). I just think that someone like Donald Trump is a far more intellectually honest spokesman for conservatism than Andrew Sullivan.

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