In the 1934 romantic movie “Death Takes a Holiday,” Death assumes human form for three days, and the world turns chaotic.
The same thing happens when the law goes on a vacation. Rules are unenforced or politicized. Citizens quickly lose faith in the legal system. Anarchy follows — ensuring that there can be neither prosperity nor security.
The United States is descending into such as abyss, as politics now seem to govern whether existing laws are enforced.
Sociologists in the 1980s found out that when even minor infractions were ignored — such as the breaking of windows, or vendors walking into the street to hawk wares to motorists in a traffic jam — misdemeanors then spiraled into felonies as lawbreakers become emboldened.
A federal law states that the president can by proclamation “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.” Yet a federal judge ruled that President Trump cannot do what the law allows in temporarily suspending immigration from countries previously singled out by the Obama administration for their laxity in vetting their emigrants.
In the logic of his 43-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson seemed to strike down the travel ban based on his own subjective opinion of a president’s supposedly incorrect attitudes and past statements.
Some 500 “sanctuary” cities and counties have decided for political reasons that federal immigration law does not fully apply within their jurisdictions. They have done so with impunity, believing that illegal immigration is a winning political issue given changing demography. In a way, they have already legally seceded from the union and provided other cities with a model of how to ignore any federal law they do not like.
The law states that foreign nationals cannot enter and permanently reside in the United States without going through a checkpoint and in most cases obtaining a legal visa or green card. But immigration law has been all but ignored. Or it was redefined as not committing additional crimes while otherwise violating immigration law. Then the law was effectively watered down further to allow entering and residing illegally if not committing “serious” crimes. Now, the adjective “serious” is being redefined as something that does not lead to too many deportations.
The logical end is no immigration law at all — and open borders.
There is a federal law that forbids the Internal Revenue Service from unfairly targeting private groups or individuals on the basis of their politics. Lois Lerner, an IRS director, did just that but faced no legal consequences.
Perhaps Ms. Lerner’s exemption emboldened New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to invite IRS employees via social media to unlawfully leak Donald Trump’s tax returns. Later, someone leaked Mr. Trump’s 2005 tax return to MSNBC.
There are statutes that prevent federal intelligence and investigatory agencies from leaking classified documents. No matter. For the last six months, the media has trafficked in reports that Mr. Trump is under some sort of investigation by government agencies for allegedly colluding with the Russians. That narrative is usually based on information from “unnamed sources” affiliated with the FBI, CIA or National Security Agency. No one has been punished for such leaking.
The leakers apparently feel that prosecutors and the courts do not mind if someone’s privacy is illegally violated, as long as it is the privacy of someone they all loathe, like Mr. Trump.
The logic seems also to be that we need only follow the laws that we like — and assume that law enforcement must make the necessary adjustments.
At this late date, a return to legality and respect for the law might seem extremist or revolutionary. For the federal government to demand that cities follow federal law or face cutoffs in federal funds might cause rioting.
Going after federal officials who leak classified documents to reporters would make those officials martyrs.
And to warn high-ranking IRS officials that they could likely go to prison for targeting groups based on their political beliefs might earn a prosecutor an unexpected IRS audit.
There is one common denominator in all these instances of attempted legal nullification: the liberal belief that laws should “progress” to reflect the supposedly superior political agenda of the left.
And if laws don’t progress? Then they can be safely ignored.
But when the law is what we say it is, or what we want it to be, there is no law. And when there is no law, there is not much left but something resembling Russia, Somalia or Venezuela.
• Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.