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American Legalism

The tendency of man in religion and in government is to control both social and individual actions by law.  The term ‘legalism’ is used to describe the strict adherence to the letter of the law rather than the spirit or intent of the law. 

Legalism isn’t always bad.  Sometimes living by the letter alone streamlines what might otherwise be time consuming and confusing.  Take, for instance, the hypothetical law that parents give to children “Don’t touch the stove”.  There may be worthy exceptions to this rule, but amending the rule for each potential purpose is absurd.  It is safer to just strictly adhere to the “do not touch” law.

Legalism has a way of evolving, however.  The original law of “don’t touch the stove” may be deemed so important that laws are created to protect it further.  What started as “don’t touch the stove” may become, “don’t come in the kitchen”.  Surely, if children aren’t allowed in the kitchen, they cannot ever touch the stove.  But why stop there?  We could just as easily keep them out of the house or neighborhood.  Soon you have children standing in another county with no clue as to what a stove even is. 

Legalism can also blur the intent of the law.  In Judaism, for instance, strict legalism disallows any kind of work on the Sabbath.  So, if a Jewish man’s son falls into a well on the Sabbath should he do no work to rescue him until the Sabbath is over?  Obviously the spirit of the law would permit work in order to save a life as life is more important than law. 

In religion, the range of a legalistic rule is expanded as regulations are expanded.  What started out as a relatively small number of commandments in Judaism grew into volumes of books written to expand on those principles (the Talmud for example).  Man added to the original laws to further protect them but, in a queer case of irony, actually lost focus on the original intent and perhaps focused more on self promotion.  The man-made laws of Judaism pushed a rabbi Christians know as Paul to write, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence”. 

In government we are no different.  Our laws and regulations have become so numerous and have infiltrated so many areas of our lives that what is and isn’t legal is no longer clear.  We have created a field of landmine legislation – a place where we must cautiously move with calculated steps.  We have laws at the city, municipality, county, state, national, and international levels.  We have laws on toilets, smoking areas, vehicle emissions, trash removal, pet ownership, satellite television, etc.  Legislatures are writing more laws than we can possibly keep up or adhere to.  It is almost certain that we are all breaking some law, even if we don’t know it or intend to. 

America has created so many laws in order to protect their free people that we, once again ironically, have legislated away freedom.  Like Paul implied, our regulators have created little of actual value but much in self-serving substance.   This is the root of our present crisis; a government that has lost the sight of the original principles through a giant web of legalistic laws.  It is this seemingly endless web that keeps businesses from starting or expanding, investors from investing, and confidence from surging.  The old idea of creating a strong legal foundation for businesses to build upon has become murky and unsettled sand that nobody dares brave.

It is time for us to scrap the crumbling establishment and erect again America’s original pillar – liberty.


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  • Steve Dennis August 17, 2011 at 5:35 AM

    Another great post RHM. It is interesting to note that the more laws we create to ensure freedom and liberty the less freedom and liberty we end up having. The government shouldn’t be there to protect a person from himself, that is the role of the individual and yet we keep enacting these nanny state regulations to do just that and our freedoms are slipping away.
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  • John Carey August 17, 2011 at 6:23 AM

    Outstanding post RHM! Our lives have become so regulated that I wonder what happened to our liberties. This article was a good reminder of just how lost we are in regards to laws and regulations.
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  • Infidel de Manahatta August 17, 2011 at 8:53 AM

    Classic catch-22. People will always want to do something to justify their existence. Dentists will always tell you to floss more even if you do. Doctors will always find something wrong with you even if there really isn’t. Legislators will write law upon law upon law because, gosh darn, the people elected us to do just this.
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  • Jim at Conservatives on Fire August 17, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    A very thought provoking essay, RHM. Just thinking out loud, sort of speak, maybe our Founders erred in calling one branch our government “Legislatures” or lawmakers instead of say “Protectors of the Constitution”. As lawmakers, the people we send to Washington believe their one and only job is to make laws and that is exactly what they have been doing since the first Congress. If the constitution had called them something else, the Founders might have listed a number of duties, one of which would be to be make laws. The mandate might have been to make the minimum number of laws necessary to implement and enforce the Constitution. Well, like I said; just thinking out loud. Great post!
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  • Trestin August 17, 2011 at 8:37 PM

    Good one. Every time we hear someone say: “There should be a law against that.” We need to correct them.
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  • Martin August 18, 2011 at 12:25 AM

    Well put. Echoing Trestin’s theme, every time a law is passed a freedom is lost. People don’t realize that laws are restrictions on actions and that the cure is all too frequently worse than the disease.

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  • Nicole August 18, 2011 at 10:54 PM

    Very interesting post! Good point here: “Our laws and regulations have become so numerous and have infiltrated so many areas of our lives that what is and isn’t legal is no longer clear. We have created a field of landmine legislation – a place where we must cautiously move with calculated steps.”I totally agree with you. Laws are needed to protect the people not the other way around.
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