Law and Justice: Breaking One Stupid Rule A Day for Moral Fitness

If something is legal, it doesn’t follow that it is just. A simple observation, but so often neglected. Failing to continuously question the tension between actual law and justice or morality is omnipresent. Take surveillance; whatever moustache-twirlingly evil practice is revealed, authorities across the globe primarily defend systematic spying by refering to deeply flawed and even secret law. Today, I read a passage of James Scott’s new book, in which he outlines ‘Scott’s Law of Anarchist Calisthenics’. It’s a hilarious and deeply inspiring way to reveal fundmantal tensions between law and justice – and my way to train moral fitness.

James Scott is a professor of political science at Yale, a farmer and an anarchist. His ‘Seeing it like a State’ (1999) is a personal favorite. The book challanges over-optimistic State ‘design’ theories that fail across cultures, regions, epoques and times. According to Scott, disregarding opposing desires of a people, bottom-up creativity and civil resistance lies at its root. Think Le Corbusier in Brasilia, analyzed in the book, or Amsterdam’s ‘De Bijlmer’ for that matter.

His 2012 book is titled ‘Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play’ and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. I remember being introduced to Scott through an interview with him in a Dutch weekly back in 2009. At the time, I was researching my thesis on data retention. I saw the deceipt and bad decision-making leading to the most controversial surveillance measure in the E.U. with my own eyes. It led me to my decision to help build up Bits of Freedom right after graduation.

In the interview, Scott explained why he breaks one stupid rule every day to train his moral fitness. Ever since, I have periods in which I quite obsessively force myself to do the same in order to remind me of the tension between laws and justice. Especially in perfectly sterile but thoroughly controlled communities like Harvard and Princeton, Scott’s aerobics are an important source of reflection, balancing and, let’s admit it, fun. Whether it’s neglecting a traffic light, social engineering your way into stupidly walled gardens, not complying to registration requirements (always through Google Docs) for every university activity you engage in, or breaching copyright for the greater good. So here’s a link to the book – I must add a particularly satisfying portion of aerobics for today.

Scott’s 2012 book actually begins with the quite hilarious personal story behind his ‘Law’. We find him struggling with a series of rather unfortunate experiences on a collective farm in East-Germany. It’s just months after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and Scott wants to learn German before becoming a visiting professor in Berlin. After a week or two he realizes both his patrons and himself are better off if he regularly escapes to the village nearby. Once a week he flees to the small city of Neubrandenburg. And so it begins:

Outside the station was a major, for Neubrandenburg at
any rate, intersection. During the day there was a fairly brisk
traffic of pedestrians, cars, and trucks, and a set of traffic lights
to regulate it. Later in the evening, however, the vehicle traffic
virtually ceased while the pedestrian traffic, if anything, swelled to take advantage of the cooler evening breeze. Regularly between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. there would be fifty or sixty pedestrians, not a few of them tipsy, who would cross the intersection. The lights were timed, I suppose, for vehicle traffic
at midday and not adjusted for the heavy evening foot traffic.
Again and again, fifty or sixty people waited patiently at
the corner for the light to change in their favor: four minutes,
five minutes, perhaps longer. It seemed an eternity.


Peering in each direction from the intersection, then, one could see a mile of so of roadway, with, typically, no traffic at all. Very occasionally a single, small Trabant made its slow, smoky way to the intersection.
Twice, perhaps, in the course of roughly five hours of my
observing this scene did a pedestrian cross against the light, and then always to a chorus of scolding tongues and fingers
wagging in disapproval. I too became part of the scene. If l had
mangled my last exchange in German, sapping my confidence,
I stood there with the rest for as long as it took for the light to
change, afraid to brave the glares that awaited me if I crossed.
If, more rarely, my last exchange in German had gone well and
my confidence was high, I would cross against the light, thinking, to buck up my courage, that it was stupid to obey a minor law that, in this case, was so contrary to reason.

As a way of justifying my conduct to myself, I began to rehearse
a little discourse that I imagined delivering in perfect German. It went something like this. “You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is ‘anarchist calisthenics.’ Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.”

He goes on:

Judging when it makes sense to break a law requires careful
thought, even in the relatively innocuous case of jaywalking.
I was reminded of this when I visited a retired Dutch scholar
whose work I had long admired. When I went to see him, he
was an avowed Maoist and defender of the Cultural Revolution,
and something of an incendiary in Dutch academic politics.
He invited me to lunch at a Chinese restaurant near his
apartment in the small town of Wageningen. We came to an
intersection, and the light was against us. Now, Wageningen,
like Neubrandenburg, is perfectly flat, and one can see for
miles in all directions. There was absolutely nothing coming.
Without thinking, I stepped into the street, and as I did so,
Dr. Wertheim said, “James, you must wait.” I protested weakly
while regaining the curb, “But Dr. Wertheim, nothing is coming.”
“James”; he replied instantly, “It would be a bad example
for the children.” I was both chastened and instructed. Here
was a Maoist incendiary with, nevertheless, a fine-tuned, dare
I say Dutch, sense of civic responsibility, while I was the Yankee
cowboy heedless of the effects of my act on my fellow citizens.
Now when I jaywalk I look around to see that there are
no children who might be endangered by my bad example.

Scott is accurate on the flatness of Wageningen, but I definitely don’t ascribe to that bit about Dutch civic reponsibility; surely, Dr. Wertheim would stand out in any crowd. But the entire story is important nonetheless. Call it ‘Scott’s Law of Anarchist Calisthenics’, or moral aerobics if you want. Approaching life like that is a potent andidote against the tenets of fundamentalistic legal positivism, unjust state control and civil nihilism alike.

If you want to follow Scott’s Law (interesting he calls it a law, right?), make sure to watch out for traffic and kids when you cross the street. You’ll tease out where you stand – obviously not only on the street – so you’ll get to know yourself in the process.

Moreover, take note of its wider implications. There’s some pretty absurd law we have to deal with today. Society and justice would be better off if we embrace the imperfection of legal systems, and allow a combination of civil justice and healhty common sense to flourish.

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