April 6, 2010

Did we get Hammurabi backwards?

Awhile ago, I was waiting at a government office and finally got up to the window at 4:25 pm, which was lucky because the agency's website had said the cutoff time for what I wanted to do was 4:30 pm. But the clerk refused. When I protested, he pointed to a sign on the wall that said the cutoff was 4:00 pm.

I couldn't win that argument. The man had a $5 plastic sign that said the cutoff was 4:00 pm.

So it is written, so it shall be done, as Yul Brynner used to say.

That got me thinking about King Hammurabi of Babylon (ruled 1792 BC to 1750 BC), who has been popular at least since the Code of Hammurabi stele was dug up in 1901 showing that he was one of the earlier kings to have the laws carved on a hunk of rock and set up in a public place.

This is usually praised as a step forward in the struggle against tyranny: Writing laws down mean that even the king is bound by laws, that laws that are spelled out beforehand mean that the king can't rule by whim, that he must spell out laws that seem fair in the abstract.

No doubt there is some truth to that, but I suspect that carving laws into stone made the king more powerful in some ways.

Before written laws, everything was kind of vague. The king would thunder from memory, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," and, I would bet, immediately a kibitzer would interject, "I always heard it was 'An eye for two teeth,'" and then some other senile codger would say, "No, it's 'An eyetooth for an ear,'" and so forth and so on.

But once the king had the laws carved in stone, then, just like the bureaucrat with the plastic sign, he had powerful juju on his side. You can't argue with a sign.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, his real name was Ibarummah.

fdfafdafd said...

There are different kinds of laws.

Laws as rules.
Laws as ideology.
Laws as sacred.
Laws as monument.

Also, it depends on how a culture explains or understands of the origins of those laws:

As god-given?
As traditional or by custom?
As man-made.
As serving social order.
As serving justice.
As serving the good of the community.
As protecting the rights of indivduals.
As serving the people.
As serving the elite.
As changeable.
As eternal.

Look at nations like Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Ceacuscu's Romania, Hussein's Iraq, and North Korea, and we realize that the powerful don't have to obey laws. The constitution of the Soviet Union guaranteed almost all the rights in the US constitution--theoretically anyway--, but there was no individual freedom and the state could do just about anything.
Hussein's Iraq was nominally socialist and committed to equality, but it was a Sunni run gangster state.
North Korea has been nominally communist and ideologically dedicated to economic democracy, but you got a fat pig living like a king while millions starve.

I suppose laws can empower a king or ruler even more by lending him a veneer of legitimacy, grandeur, continuity, mandate of heaven, mandate of people, mandate of history, etc.

Laws existed in Nazi Germany, but there were essentially monumental or ornamental, lending the Nazi gangsters the surface sheen of legality, continuity, and respectability. Nazis were able to conceal their gangsterism behind the facade of legal process.

In a milder way, we have the same thing happening in the US under Obama. Obama is supported by lawyers, and everything seems legal and constitutional, but law is whatever they say it is. If they say illegals have a legal right to be here, that's that. Laws as we understand them don't matter.
There is also the higher 'law' of 'social justice' that animates the left. They will break or violate existing laws to serve the higher 'laws' of history as Marx explained it.
We think of laws as codes in legal documents. But, social scientists speaks of laws of history, like scientists speak of laws of physics. Marxists care less for the laws of man than the 'scientific' laws of history which shall lead to the rise of leftist state.

fafsafsfy said...

In the end, it's the balance of power and values that may matter more than specific laws.

A guy like Stalin or Hitler in a totalitarian state may institute something like our bill of rights, but it won't mean a damn thing. All the power will be with the gangster state.

On the other hand, imagine a society with vague laws and no guarantee of individual rights but where the power is shared or spread out amongst various forces, groups, sectors, or branches. People may lead freer and more just lives in such place since no single ruler or institution can gain complete power.

So, the balance of powers may matter more than laws. Canada is a democracy and its laws guarantee individual rights and freedom, BUT it's now essentially a PC police state where one can be fined or jailed for political incorrectness. Why?
Because the government, academia, media, and other centers of power are heavily imbalanced toward the left. Since there isn't sufficient rightwing elements in the most powerful institutions to counter-balance out the left, it doesn't matter what Canadian laws may have guaranteed in the first place. Those who gained most of the power have created new 'laws'--fickle and ever changing--which make a total mockery of democracy and liberal freedom, but whaddya gonna do?

Even in the US, the Constitution didn't matter when power was concentrated in one group. The income tax for instance. Slavery of blacks. Locking up anti-war opponents during the Civil War and WWI. The internment of Japanese Americans. Fighting wars not even declared by Congress.

With liberals controlling most of the media, academia, government, and etc, we are inching more and more toward 'hate speech' laws. They don't care what's in the constitution. If they gain total power, they'll do as they please. Just look at affirmative action. What in the US constitution allow that? Laws will always essentially be or molded to be whatever those in power say they should be.

Laws are important, but when one side gains most or all of the power, there is just too much temptation to override the stricturs of the laws to get everything its way. The Right would do the same thing. If Christian Fundamentalists gained near total dominance of the media, academia, and other institutions, we would inch toward theocracy no matter what the constitution says about the separation of church and state.

The British never created a constition like we did, but they presided over a democracy because of the balance of forces among various groups. But look what's happening to the UK ever since all the political, legal, cultural, and intellectual institutions have been taken over by the Left. It's no longer a real democracy. There's no more free speech.

Or just take a look at South Africa. How long before blacks say 'who gives a shit about the constitution?' and decide to grab all the wealth and land from whites?

Garland said...

I thought the whole point of your story was that the law wasn't consistent; one "sign" had said 4:30 while another said 4.

Steve Sailer said...

The graven image wins over cyberspace.

Anonymous said...

But once the king had the laws carved in stone, then, just like the bureaucrat with the plastic sign, he had powerful juju on his side. You can't argue with a sign.

The iSteve-osphere discovers legalism.

jack strocchi said...

The way I heard it, spelling comes from "to cast a spell". So yeah, the written word is hand-maiden to the sheathed sword.

Anonymous said...

"You can't argue with a sign."

You don't know my wife.

Bill said...

It's two sides of the same coin.
By making laws explicit, the king gets more power, as you say. I think you have the mechanism wrong, however. The power transfer is from the king's flunkies to the king---with an objective reference standard, subjects can protest against flunkies to higher flunkies or the king and have some hope of winning. Not only does this make the king's commands/laws more likely to be obeyed, but it gives the king a mechanism to get information about what his flunkies are up to.

On the other hand, this extra power goes away if the king starts ignoring his own laws willy nilly, because then we're just back in the pre-law state. So the laws bind the king only to the extent that he is wise---to the extent that he sees and cares that he loses long run by violating his own law in the short run. The laws are "self-enforcing" against the king, as they have to be.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'd go for "one eartooth for an eyelid" :P It'd probably be difficult to implement, though.

Incidentally, I'm all for empowering kings. The more "empowered" he becomes, the more obvious the ignoble intentions behind his laws will become. Better make the bastard as "transparent" as possible. After all, "rule of law" eventually reduces to "rule of whoever makes the law."

Better the devil you can hate to your heart's content than the cunning, duplicitous bureaucrat who can dupe you into thinking it's all for your own good.


JT

Thomas said...

Somehow, I suspect that Hammurabi didn't have kibitzers.

Mr. Anon said...

"That got me thinking about King Hammurabi of Babylon (ruled 1792 BC to 1750 BC), who has been popular at least since the Code of Hammurabi stele was dug up in 1901 showing that he was one of the earlier kings to have the laws carved on a hunk of rock and set up in a public place."

Of course, most people couldn't read. And I'm sure there were plenty of clever babylonian courtiers and scribes who talked about a "living hunk of rock" and saying things like "......but what does the hunk of rock really mean?".

Anonymous said...

Donald Kagan says that, in Athens anyway, the introduction of written law weakened the aristocrats, who had previously interpreted traditional law for their plebian neighbours. In Athens' case, this eventually led to democracy (there being no king), but I can see how it could lead to a centralized despotism in other cases.

bjdouble said...

What do you need a sign for? Just point in some direction and say "look it up." If you've ever checked the footnotes in an academic paper, you soon realize that about half are wrong or don't say what they're supposed to.

Black Death said...

Although the 1936 Soviet constitution guaranteed all sorts of non-existent rights, it's interesting to note what happened to its authors. From Wiki:

Although the soviet propaganda said that the constitution was of Stalin's it was in fact written by a special commission including Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek and Yakov Yakovlev, all of whom were executed in the Great Purge.

....

Looks like their constitution didn't help them too much when Stalin's executioners came calling.

Paul Mendez said...

Steve:

I can relate to the fact that when you got screwed over by some petty bureaucrat,the first thing that pops into your head was the subject of a blog post about Hammurabi!

For 9 years I wrote a monthly newsletter on job training. I swear that by the end of 9 years, if a spaceship full of aliens had landed in my back yard, the first thing that would have popped into my head was, "Influx of Jobless Spacemen from Andromeda Six To Exhaust Federal Funding for WIA Programs."

mnuez said...

Check out The Onion's latest:

http://www.theonion.com/video/man-attempts-to-assassinate-obama-but-not-because,17220/

The best part is where he tried to get a black co-conspirator but then figured that itself would be racist.

Thrasymachus said...

This seems to be a Middle Eastern phenomenon. Starting with the Jews, and the whole "it is written" thing- note the passive voice. The Muslims with the Koran being directly dictated by God, and becoming an unquestionable written document.

For our purposes the right needs to stop fetishizing the Constitution, because the left did it first, and now "unconstitutional" means "something a liberal doesn't like."

Anonymous said...

In a milder way, we have the same thing happening in the US under Obama. Obama is supported by lawyers, and everything seems legal and constitutional, but law is whatever they say it is. If they say illegals have a legal right to be here, that's that. Laws as we understand them don't matter.



You're describing law as lawyers understand it. Lawyers of both parties insist that illegal immigration is not actually illegal. You can see the same lawyers mentality at work in the banking crisis.

How does that joke go? Ask a lawyer what the law is and he'll ask you,"What do you want it to be?" Their role is to put a legalistic gloss on the whims of the powerful.

Anonymous said...

Laws are important, but when one side gains most or all of the power, there is just too much temptation to override the stricturs of the laws to get everything its way. The Right would do the same thing. If Christian Fundamentalists gained near total dominance of the media, academia, and other institutions, we would inch toward theocracy no matter what the constitution says about the separation of church and state.




{roll eyes}

You know, the "Christian Fundamentalists" used to run this country from top to bottom for about two hundred years, and the the theofascist state never materialized.

Sid said...

In Ancient Greece, written laws were considered to be symptomatic of tyrants. A tyrant, in this context, means a monarch who ascended to power not by blood but by mob or military rule, much like how many dictators operate now.

In Greece, it was believed that everyone basically knew the rules and that fair conduct was expected. When a tyrant was in charge, written laws were needed to keep everyone in check and forcibly keep society in balance.

fsafasbb said...

Laws can serve justice for the people or justification for the ruling power. In feudal Japan whatever laws that existed justified the power of the military elite.

We prolly need to draw a distinction between laws and codes. Laws, as we understand them, are clearly laid out rules that says "you can't do this or that". Codes, as in the warrior code of the samurai, are more like "what you must do and how you should think and behave". Like code of the warrior.
Chivalric codes were ideals but not clearly defined laws in Europe.

Laws can also aid the ruling elite if possessed of messianic character. It gives those in power the MORAL RIGHT to expand their power, rule over more people, and pry into their private affairs of people. Communism was about uniting mankind and bringing justice to all mankind. As such, it gave communist leaders to conquer, control, and banish private life. In the name of liberating the people, it gained total control of the people.

If the French Revolutionaries hadn't been so steeped in their idea of high-minded ideals--contained in the Napoloeonic laws or some such--, they would not have gone into Russia to spread 'freedom' and 'justice' and all that. Whether Napoleon was idealistic or just vain, the laws of the French Republic gave moral cover to his wars.

Gangsters live by a certain set of clannish or tribal codes of loyalty, but they have no laws. As such, their power and reach always remains limited.

Mr. Anon said...

"Thrasymachus said...

This seems to be a Middle Eastern phenomenon. Starting with the Jews, and the whole "it is written" thing- note the passive voice. The Muslims with the Koran being directly dictated by God, and becoming an unquestionable written document."

One of my favorite funny movie lines was from "Lawrence of Arabia" when Anthony Quinn off-handedly said: "Well, then it was written."

rob said...

You know, the "Christian Fundamentalists" used to run this country from top to bottom for about two hundred years, and the the theofascist state never materialized.

No, the Episcopalians ran things. God, it would be wonderful to have them back...

Mr. Anon said...

" rob said...

No, the Episcopalians ran things. God, it would be wonderful to have them back..."

You mean like G.H.W. Bush? I don't think you'd want contemporary Episcopalians running things today. They're not the same as they used to be.

not a hacker said...

Pointing out that a putative "rule" isn't posted doesn't work either. I was kicked out of a university library because I asked another patron to lower her voice. When the librarian told me direct inter-patron contact was prohibited, I asked to see the rule. That got me tossed.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

No, the Episcopalians ran things. God, it would be wonderful to have them back...

It could be argued that the Episcopalians are STILL running things. It's just that now all the Episcopalians are gay feminists.

Anonymous said...

Did Hammurabi have decent ham rub at least?

John Seiler said...

And a bureaucrat like the one you encountered was just put in charge of your health care.

Anonymous said...

"{roll eyes}

You know, the "Christian Fundamentalists" used to run this country from top to bottom for about two hundred years, and the the theofascist state never materialized."


At no point have Christian fundamentalists ever gotten close to running things "from top to bottom" in the USA. Christian fundamentalists would not have written the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, nor would they have tolerated all those Deists who did.

Prior to the 20th century our elites kept religion out of politics as much as possible, and prior to about 1970 no major party would have considered making actual Christian fundamentalists - and their sectarian religious agenda - a major part of their political coalition.