dLaw - Road to the Middle Class - by Christopher Chantrill
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Living Under Law

by Christopher Chantrill
January 01, 2005 at 12:18 pm

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IN the United States, the immigrant groups that have most successfully assimilated are those that possessed a culture of literacy and living under law, according to Thomas Sowell. It is clear why this is so.  In the country, people live under power. In the city, people live under law.

In the face-to-face community of the countryside, conflict was resolved by the power of the local landlord.  But in about 500 BC in China, the ego of the local lord had expanded into the ruinous warfare of the Warring States period.  Something had to tame the warring egos of the land.  As Huston Smith tells the story, this new thing was created in the spiritual awakening of the Axial Age, when Confucianism, Buddhism, and Judaism all were founded with their specific and self-conscious articulation of the correct path for the individual ego in the Five Relationships, the Eightfold Way, and the Ten Commandments.  What all these new self-conscious traditions understood was that pure power, the ego power that had burst the bonds of face-to-face community, was a problem. Human society, as it emerged from the face-to-face village community, could not be successfully carried forward solely by egotistical warlords who understood nothing but power.  The power of the unbridled ego that operates beyond the face-to-face society had to be limited by rules.

The Axial Age did not solve the problem of the unbridled ego for all time.  Its achievement was to record the problem of the unbridled ego as a great human drama, and to show that it was possible to transcend the heritage of unconscious tradition and also mitigate the brutal world of ego and power. The doctrine of might-is-right could be transcended by a higher power that stood above all power relations and could judge the actions of the powerful.  This higher power was law, growing out of the twin cultural foundations of reason and literacy.  

Law is a city phenomenon. It is in the city that the individual ego, the force that challenged the face-to-face society, is once more contained. The law of the city responds to the breakdown in kinship and the rise of the individual ego.  It marks the decline of the perpetual family and the rise of the purposeful individual.  Law waits upon the birth of reason, the idea that the universe operates by rule in regular, predictable ways, and not at the will and prompting of familiar spirits.

The rise of the European city over the last one thousand years has encouraged a move away from the power relations and the life-or-death struggle over land to the growth of law and contract.  The first to flourish,—Venice, Florence, and Genoa—were the commercial hubs of northern Italy, with Venice and Genoa establishing naval empires in the Mediterranean and Florence becoming a major center of woolen manufacture and banking. 

Law does not emerge in the city out of genius or great leadership.  It emerges through necessity and through the painstaking accumulation of experience, as expressed in case law and legislation.  In the city, the merchants need a culture that honors the idea of a contract and rewards trust and honorable dealings. They also need quick and fair adjudication of their disputes, because time is money.  Thus the city calls forth a culture of law, a mitigation of power relationships into a matrix of rules, and the softening of family and blood kinship into the individual, the family, and the perpetual corporation as the atomic nuclei of society.  Law is not just a codification of power relationships, but a genuine transcending of the simple calculus of power with something universal and beneficial to all. He who learns the art of living under law has learned to thrive in the city.  The law of the city is the rule of the road to the middle class.

  Over one hundred and fifty years ago, the Irish came to America from a land of arbitrary British power and oppression.  They struggled to adapt to the free air of New York and Boston and took the greater part of a century to cast off the culture of pessimism. But the Jews, who had spent the previous millennium reading and arguing over the Torah in their synagogues, leapt at the opportunities of the new land and began to challenge the WASP elite within a generation of their arrival.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Featured RMC Books on Law

Hernando De Soto, The Mystery of Capital
How ordinary people in the United States wrote the law during the 19th century

F. A. Hayek, Law Legislation and Liberty, Vol 1
How to build a society based upon law

Henry Maine, Ancient Law
How the movement of progressive peoples is from status to contract

John Zane, The Story of Law
How law developed from early times down to the present

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