The Law is (sometimes) an Ass

mr. bumbleSo cried the unfortunate Mr. Bumble towards the end of the musical version of the Dickensian classic, Oliver!  I had the opportunity to play the rumbunctious character a few years ago here at the college, complete with pillow to fatten me up, and I quite enjoyed the opportunity to shout the phrase to my students and assembled audience members, with the implicit emphasis that ‘ass’ still means a donkey, and only secondarily (and I am not sure how) the posterior.


After all, as even the great Saint Thomas says, sometimes the law is an ass (well, not in those words, but the gist is there).  Unlike the natural, moral law, perfect in its principles (since derived from God), human law is fallible, decreed by imperfect and fallible men, with some more imperfect and fallible than others.  I will let you decide where our recent and current crop of legislators falls on that spectrum.


The great columnist Joseph Sobran, God rest his soul, would often allude to the fact that a society with a group of men (and women) whose sole professional job is to ‘make laws’, is headed for disaster.  The knee-jerk reaction to ‘make a new law’ every time something bad happens does not bode well for the freedom and independence of the citizenry of any country.  As the old adage goes, bad cases make bad laws.  Laws should not be made in a state of emotional distress, which is also why Thomas states that laws should be made rarely, and only after much reflection, by a few wise men, once the emotional reaction has abated.  A law is an ordinance of reason, not of the  gut.



Alas, we have many laws that are laws of the gut, passed with an emotional (or, worse, a rational) desire to keep the citizens ‘safe’ from any harm, under the warm, fuzzy blanket of Canadian legislation.  Take the drinking laws.  Some group of parliamentarians decreed that one could not legally drink alcohol under the rather arbitrary age of 19, outside Mum and Dad’s careful supervision within the home.  One may argue, well, did they not have to pick some age?   I would dispute with that, and propose leaving it up to the citizenry, and particularly the family, to decide who drinks what and when.


But let us accept the premise for argument’s sake that some age must be decreed.  Why nineteen?  ‘Children’ (as those under 19 are, again, arbitrarily called in Canadian law) who are 18 (and even  younger) can vote and be drafted; they can engage in sexual relations and contract matrimony; they can have their unborn children murdered (euphemistically, ‘get abortions’) without parental consent, yet not one of them  can dare put a Chardonnay or pale ale to their lips.


What this encourages is an infantilization of our budding young adults.  The law has a pedagogical effect, and if one is treated like an immature child in the law, then one tends to act like one.


Hence, what we have on many of our university campuses, filled with eighteen year olds (especially with the abolition of grade 13 in high school a number of years ago), is a binge-drinking culture.  So-called ‘underage’ drinking is driven underground, in the bushes, in the alleys, at house parties; since they are breaking the law, when given the opportunity to drink, the young people will down as much as possible, often as quickly as they can, in secret, in the dark.


This problem is even worse in the good old U.S of A., still labouring (like Canada) under a strict-Calvinist view of alcohol as an apparently intrinsically evil substance; the attempt to ban it outright under Prohibition, begun in  1920 with the 18th amendment, collapsed ignominiously 13 years later with the 21st amendment in 1933 (but not before making a bunch of gangster bootleggers rich).  Now the drinking age is 21, a law imposed on all the states by federal diktat (blackmailed, apparently, using federal money, which means, of course, the taxpayers’ own money).


That basically means that only a small percentage of college students can drink legally.  But, as custom dictates, and custom always  trumps law (as the attempt at Prohibition taught the over-reaching legislators in America), young people will drink, and will experiment with alcohol.  That custom, which I heartily admit could become unhealthy, should be directed and guided towards a good end, with parents and those who stand in their place leading the way by teaching and example, and intervention when  necessary.


But even we ‘adults’ (I hesitate to put myself in that category, but in I go) are curtailed in our imbibing habits.  Alcohol is only permitted in private residences and licensed establishments.  Anywhere else is illegal.  So a group of said adults gathering for a picnic on a summer day must partake of water, or sparkling dealcoholized cider, for fear of being busted by a group of o.p.p robocops in full gear to pour their booze on the lawn, and cite them with a healthy fine to help pay for said armored gear.  I read a year or two ago of a disgraceful event in Stratford a  few years ago; no, not one of the plays, but a police officer who, witnessing a gathering of grannies out to catch some Shakespeare daring to enjoy a glass of wine on the grass, grabbed their Pinot Noirs and poured them out on the lawn before their eyes.  After all, the law’s the law, and who knows what might have transpired if left to their own devices? I suppose he was ‘doing his job’ (the problem is just that that is his job).  Can we not consider changing the law to fit with custom?


Imagine how different would a culture be with a healthy respect for the fruit of the barley, grape and other plants, distilled into a hearty beer, wine or cider.  If families were permitted to teach their young people to drink responsibly, to use this gift of  God as a complement to food and good times, moderately, with laughter, and never as a drug, or to deliberately inebriate oneself.  We find such cultures in Europe (but, alas, even those halcyonic days of the old country are changing under the bloated European Union).


As Chesterton once said, you should always drink to remember, never drink to forget.  But I’m tempted to down a stiff Scotch right in front of Parliament to forget the ridiculous laws this country puts forward to keep us coddled in the fat arms of the State.  Instead, I will retire to the comfort of my own home, which Chesterton called a man’s kingdom, and perhaps, or perhaps not, enjoy a dark ale, and toast the freedom we once had as Canadians.


I will write again on how we might approach such laws; take me not for an anarchist, for I do have a healthy respect for law and those in authority, but we must put all things in their proper perspective.


October 1, 2014

Saint Therese of Lisieux