Why Little Things Matter

The IRS targets conservative groups for special scrutiny during the 2012 election. Nobody goes to jail.

A group of climate scientists petition the U.S. Justice Department to use the anti-racketeering RICO statutes to criminalize criticism of global warming theories. They literally want to put people in jail for disagreeing with them.

Cities use red-light cameras to catch people running red lights at intersections. But they then reduce the yellow light time to increase revenue.

Cities and counties, in cooperation with Federal investigators, use asset forfeiture laws to pad their budgets. People who have done nothing wrong are financially ruined because their bank accounts and property can be seized with no criminal charges filed, and an onerous appeal process makes retrieval of their property difficult or impossible.

The FCC has decided that the Internet, which touches everyone’s life in this modern era, should be regulated as a utility. This gives the agency broad and arbitrary discretion over what products can be produced, what services can be offered, and who is bestowed with official favor.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul. It is an independent agency, with no congressional oversight, that is charged with protecting consumer finances.  But with no accountability and broad powers, there are already charges that it is abusing its authority. Most importantly, the creation of a completely unaccountable Federal agency is an indicator of the disconnect between lawmakers and the people.

No single thing on this list tells us much. But all of them, together with dozens of other, similar things, tells us a lot. Even people who think conservatives and global-warming critics should be silenced, at some level, realize that these things indicate that the law is becoming increasingly meaningless.

People may not think about these things in the way I’ve described them here – they may not connect these disparate things in the same way – but at some level those with any intelligence at all recognize that government authority is decreasingly reliable as a source of legal stability.

When the law is arbitrary and when bureaucrats can make sweeping decisions with no accountability, then there is no law.

It’s not that the law has completely broken down. Traffic courts still issue fines and criminals, some of them anyway, still go to jail. But the attitude of government toward people has changed. As government has become decreasingly accountable and increasingly distant, they no longer see the people as people. They no longer see people as having a mix of rights and responsibilities. Instead they see people as a population to be controlled and ruled.

People don’t trust the police. Both houses of congress have some of the lowest approval ratings of any group you can name. Politicians in general have a bad name. Even people who want to use government to punish any disagreement are tacitly admitting that the law is increasing arbitrary and decreasingly dependable. They just want to abuse it for their own purposes.

The old Soviet Union controlled many aspects of the lives of its subjects. It was said that the laws were so numerous and so complex that it was impossible to live without being in violation of one, so anyone could be arrested at any time on some pretext. Laws were often vague and subject to whimsical interpretation, much like the recent laws that have been passed here in the U.S.. Many things were prohibited and considered criminal offenses, including criticism of the leadership. The situation produced some strange gallows humor such as the following:

A judge walks out of his chambers laughing uproariously. A colleague  approaches him and asks why he is laughing. “I just heard the funniest joke in the world!” “Well, go ahead, tell me!” says the other judge. “I can’t – I just gave someone ten years for it!”

People in the old Soviet Union were forced to obey the government, but nobody trusted the government. Even those who took advantage of the corrupt nature of the system were aware that it was completely corrupt and that the law really meant nothing.

Jesus said that if you can’t be trusted with little things, you shouldn’t expect to be trusted with anything that matters.

Little things are red flags. A boyfriend who lies casually or who uses you before marriage is likely to be an abuser or cheater after the wedding. There are red flags that employers look for in interviewing potential candidates for a job. Too many of those can disqualify the candidate because they point to larger issues.

A guy who frequently makes sarcastic comments about his wife is telling you something whether he knows it or not. A pattern of small but significant dishonesties indicates an overall lack of integrity. And a growing pattern of arbitrary abuse of authority by politicians and bureaucrats points to an increasing sense that they feel entitled to rule and that they have a disdain for the law – and scorn for the people.

It’s always risky to assume we know the motives of other people. And sometimes little things really are little. But little things can be a window into the bigger room. One or two little things may be an aberration. But a string of them should tell us something. We sometimes treat the little things as if they did not matter. But little things matter, if only because they tell us a lot about the big, important things.