Illegal immigrants have broken the law. For many, that’s reason enough to want them all deported, and reason enough to oppose amnesty of any sort, including DREAMer legislation, and to go as far as arguing against birthright citizenship, declaring that the children of illegals should not benefit from their parents’ crime.

In the world of logic, this is known as appeal-to-law, and is considered an informal fallacy. The fallacy lies in conflating legal with morally correct.

Yes, many laws are morally proper. Laws against murder, theft, robbery, rape, assault, burglary, and bearing false witness all have strong moral underpinnings, and are found in just about every major and successful society in history (government murder and theft is another matter, of course…). But, not all laws have moral underpinnings, and there are countless examples of bad laws, on the books today and on the books in less enlightened times. There are also laws that may not be considered “bad,” but that are violated routinely.

Have you ever employed a nanny or hired a local teen as a baby sitter? If so, did you pay the employer’s share of the payroll tax to the government? No? Congratulations, you broke the law, and many would-be politicians have seen their appointments and careers derailed by this transgression.

Have you ever exceeded the posted speed limit? Better yet, have you ever gone a day without exceeding the posted speed limit?

Have you ever opened junk mail addressed to someone else?

Have you ever cursed at another driver in a road rage incident in Maryland? Thrown a snowball in Topeka? Mispronounced “Arkansas” in Arkansas?

We all know that there are laws we honor only when convenient or when the risk of getting caught is high. We also all know that there are many stupid, pointless, and/or outdated laws on the books.

Clearly, this doesn’t obviate laws regarding immigration, just as it doesn’t obviate laws against murder or theft. But, it does make the point that the mere existence of a law doesn’t validate the premise of the law, and that’s the point here. Stating (or yelling, as I once witnessed Bill O’Reilly do in a heated argument many years ago) “They broke the law!” is not a compelling argument, logically or morally.

You can certainly argue that the law may be a good law, that there are reasons for its existence in its current form, and therefore that it should be enforced. That’s its own matter, and that’s how you should engage if you believe that illegals should all be deported. I leave that argument for another day.

It’s worth noting that Rosa Parks broke the law. Gandhi broke the law. The patrons of the Stonewall Inn broke the law. The Boston Tea Partiers broke the law. Emily Davison broke the law. The Chinese student in Tiananmen Square broke the law. Martin Luther King broke the law. Countless protestors throughout history have broken the law in acts of civil disobedience.

Do any of these instances serve, via their own moral uprightness, to convey moral authority on illegal immigrants, and obviate their transgression?

No. But, they do illustrate, however, that “the law is the law” isn’t cut-and-dried, and that it shouldn’t be used as a self-contained assertion.

Want to argue for a hard-line resolution to the illegal immigrant situation? Want to argue for strong borders (as I have)? Do so on the merits of the argument, not the fact of an existing law.

A law is a construct. Sometimes, it has moral underpinnings. Sometimes, it does not. Sometimes, it serves a goal desired at its inception, and it may succeed or fail at doing so. Sometimes, it is written to benefit those in power or to bestow benefit upon the favored. Sometimes, its premise is enteral, other times, its premise becomes antiquated. Laws are not self-validating, their mere existence is not a justification for what they say or require. And, they can be changed with the stroke of a pen. Bear this in mind before you think to proclaim “The law is the law!” in an argument over, well, anything.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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