- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

Do you know the feeling when, as if someone had flicked a switch, a thousand-watt light bulb comes on inside your head? It happened to me the other day when I realized that two words: "reasonable" and "unreasonable" account for America's uniqueness as much as any other attribute.
Contrary to prevailing (classic Marxist-Leninist) thinking that economic conditions provide the foundations and everything else is "superstructure," the truth is the other way around. Our spectacular economic success is the result of a unique legal-moral foundation upon which a successful political system could be built.
One of the quintessential differences between Roman-based, codified Continental law and English common law is that verdicts are delivered by lay jurors and not by professional jurists. No one can be found guilty if just one of 12 fellow citizens sees grounds for "reasonable doubt."
The Constitution prohibits, among other things, "unreasonable searches and seizures."
You could travel Planet Earth from East to West, from North to South, and not find a single set of law books — outside the English-speaking world — in which these two magic words would appear. Forget Libya or Outer Mongolia. Do you think a government of France would be bound by having to be reasonable? Or that a German citizen would expect of an official to consider whether he was acting unreasonably?
In Soviet-occupied Budapest, a star of opera had a chronically ill brother whom he visited every Friday from 2 to 6. He always parked his car in the same spot. One Friday, he returned to his car at 6 and found a fine on his windshield. He looked for a policeman and found one nearby. "This is a mistake," the singer exclaimed. "No mistake," the patrolman said. "You were parked in a no-parking zone." "But I've been parking here for years," protested the star. "Do you see this sign?" asked the keeper of the law: "Parking Not Permitted."
"Officer," said our hero, "I swear by everything sacred, that sign was not here at 2 o'clock." "Right you are," said the voice of authority. "It was placed here at 4 p.m. That will be 600 florins."
Our singer got on the phone to find a police officer of proven operatic tastes. Once located, the colonel in question could not stop talking about all the wonderful performances for which he felt indebted to our singer. "Let me check out your story," he said, "and come to see me next week."
Next week, the colonel was beaming. "It happened exactly as you said. They put up the sign while you were sitting at the bedside of your sick brother." He stretched out a hand. "You are 100 percent right. Pay only 300."
The singer paid up. No participant in this story had expectations, much less the obligation, to be reasonable.
The extraordinary step of incorporating such words in the legal foundations of a society requires the monumental assumption that all participants — government and governed — can and will know the difference between reasonable and unreasonable and, what is more, will apply judgment and discretion based on those criteria.
Calling the assumption monumental is almost an understatement, so unlikely is it that a society of diverse human beings will accept such a standard, and can function in accordance with it.
But the people of the United States of America have done just that. Their legislative bodies have been made up of representatives who believed in the existence of many a topic "about which reasonable men may disagree." We have to be careful not to turn our once-reasonable debates into irreconcilable differences.
We also have to realize the time and energy we save as a result of the expectations we have of one another.
For my first concert tour of Mexico, I arrived with a visa, a work permit, and every conceivable immunization. Yet, I had to sit and wait for seven hours in the empty airport until the immigration officer himself wanted to go home and let me through. "You silly man, he was just waiting for his $20 bakshish," my manager admonished me.
And so to the point. Two current debates ought to be affected by these considerations. One is immigration, of course. Newcomers arrive from lands in which "reasonable" is neither a part of legal language, nor a concept about which citizens are expected to apply judgement. If we wish immigrants to benefit fully from the opportunity, if we wish to preserve what has made our society more successful than any other, we will facilitate speedy comprehension of the idea. So long as newcomers are encouraged to stay with their language, they haven't got a chance. Unless you speak English, you cannot begin to understand what we are talking about.
The other is about alliances, international courts and United Nations initiatives. We have to realize that, for the time being, the legal thinking of most other societies is not compatible with our own. We have to limit our collaboration to an extent that is reasonable.
And it follows that subordinating any aspect of our laws to international jurisdictions is nothing short of unreasonable.

Balint Vazsonyi, concert pianist and director of the Center for the American Founding, is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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