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Laws, huh, what are they good for? Absolutely Nothing!


Joe Sellman (2L)

Anarchy is not a synonym for chaos. Chaos is disorder and confusion. Anarchy is the absence of order, or more specifically, anarchy is a political theory that rejects either the need for or the legitimacy of the state.  Many people conflate the two and I believe this comes from the assumption that anarchy will inevitably and quickly lead to chaos. However, you can have chaos outside of anarchy and in theory you can have peace and order in the absence of an authority.

At the age of 17 or 18, while first studying political philosophy, I stumbled across anarchism. I enjoyed that it was challenging to me, but even more so I think I enjoyed that it was challenging to others. And for over a year I could be found at all the trendiest parties (that philosophy students attend) identifying myself as an anarchist. However, my days as an armchair anarchist were swiftly ended when a friend suggested that with the upcoming general election that I should put my politics into practice. Foolishly, I asked what he had in mind. He suggested dropping a lit match in the ballot box would be a good start, ideally near the end of the day. Inchoate offences aside (for which I knew nothing at the time), I recoiled in horror. And thus, I was forced to accept that I rejoice in democracy, that I am strongly attached to order, systems, processes, and stability.

However, while I can no longer (nor would I wish to) claim to be an anarchist, I believe there is still value in exploring the ideas the philosophy presents. During my flirtation with anarchy, I read a number of works by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). In his pamphlet Law and Authority, Kropotkin states that all laws fit into one of three categories and proceeds to argue that each category is unnecessary. Firstly, there are laws that protect property; secondly, there are laws that protect the government; and thirdly, there are laws that protect people.

Laws that protect property

In first year property law, we all studied the Lockean rationale for an individual being able to claim ownership of land, the concept of mixing our labour with the land to produce something that otherwise wouldn’t exist in nature. Kropotkin takes no issue with that form of a property, and suggests that humanity respects the “right of each to what he has created without the interposition of any special [property] laws.”

Instead, Kropotkin argues that laws to protect property actually “rob” the value of the labourer’s efforts from them in two ways. Firstly, the system of capitalism which separates ownership of property and labouring for wages enables those who own property to pay those who conduct the labour (but have no property of their own) to not pay the full value for the labour.

Secondly, he argues that laws that protect property assign ownership to that which “belongs to everybody in general [but] to nobody in particular.” For example, the value of a house in a community is not based on the money a purchaser paid for it, nor is it solely based on the labour of those that built it, but is based upon “…the labour of something like fifty generations of [people] who have built the town, beautified it…” and so on.

Kropotkin concludes that these laws only serve to subordinate workers to owners, “and thus afford security for exploitation.” Therefore, the first category of laws relating to property are unnecessary.

Laws that protect the government

“[T]he mission of all governments, monarchical, constitutional, or republican, is to protect and maintain by force the privileges of the classes in possession, the aristocracy, clergy and traders.” Kropotkin characterizes the state, and its administration, as the blunt force through which society maintains property and power in the hands of a minority. Unsurprisingly, as an anarchist, Kropotkin states that the only use to be made of laws that protect the state is to “fling them into the fire;” I assume the use here is warmth.

The logic is that, the state primarily exists to protect the interests of those who (unjustly) own property, therefore when we have shown the first classification of laws (that protect property) are unnecessary, the justification for laws to protect the government disappears.

Laws that protect people

Kropotkin states that the majority of crimes against the person are committed because of an individual’s desire to “obtain possession of someone’s wealth.” If the first two categories of law are eliminated, and thus so is the unequal allocation of wealth, Kropotkin speculates that the majority of these crimes will disappear. Partially, because the ownership of property would be much more limited, and partially by necessity, if there is less property owned there is more of an ability for those would-be criminals to sustain themselves by legitimate means.

Of the remaining crimes committed by the “brute,” Kropotkin says laws that protect people do not actually protect people, but punish instead. He argues that punishment is no deterrence to crime. Instead, he states that societal issues have an impact on crime: “if the harvest is good, and bread cheap … the number of murders immediately decreases.” Kropotkin argues that the solution for when a crime is committed is not punishment but compassion, reform, and equality, all of which can be offered without the state.

In summary, Kropotkin says we do not need property laws because most property is an assignment of unjustly attained wealth. We do not need the laws that protect the state as the state only exists to maintain the unequal distribution of wealth, and finally we do not need criminal laws because if we abolish the first two categories the majority of crimes will cease to occur and any remaining criminals should be reformed in the community rather than punished by the state.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not an anarchist, nor do I subscribe to the arguments of Kropotkin and would rebuke him in the following ways:

  • • I do not believe that it is a universal truth that people will respect property rights purely on the basis of respecting the efforts another has used to gain the property
  • • Unlike in pre-revolutionary Russia, the state often has legislation that exists to re-distribute wealth to those most in need in our societies
  • • A criminal justice system that focuses on reformation rather than punishment is possible and likely to be more successful under state organization than a piecemeal approach

However, without being an anarchist, I can appreciate that the intention and/or consequences of a law can be to the detriment of ideals of democracy, equality of opportunity, and fairness. A law is not just by virtue of being a law. Part of being a lawyer is to consider the system that we are a part of and offer valid criticisms when we see injustices.