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February 5, 2020 / Congau

The Lawmaker’s Privilege

Doing bad is bad enough, but it’s only really bad when it’s illegal. We get that reaction all the time; that shrugging of shoulders whenever an unfortunate action is met with the reply: “well, it isn’t illegal.”

That makes a big difference in the eyes of the world, but what difference does it really make? “Illegal” only means that certain authorities have had the power to outlaw an activity they find inconvenient to themselves. Sure, there may be an ethical element also, but why trust the verdict of a random government more than your own judgment?

This almost superstitious belief in law is a great tool for authorities when justifying their own existence. They decide what is right and wrong, and obviously they always call their own action right.

This is particularly clear in the case of international law since it is mainly meant to regulate the action of governments. However, in international relations most governments are reduced to various degrees of subordination to other states. They are not free to accept or reject laws the way they can do it domestically. Some international regulations are not entirely to their advantage but dismissing them would come with the cost of international exclusion.

Only a few powers, and one in particular, can avoid that cost since the others can’t exclude them. The US can afford to accept only those laws that are convenient to itself, and therefore it will never run the risk of breaking international law. Other countries may find it bad that the US refuses to ratify the ban on landmines, but since it’s not breaking any existing law, it is somehow not all that bad.

The result of this strict legal thinking is that this great power would never be able to do anything really immoral, and isn’t that admirable?

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