The death penalty principle:
Many years ago Europe developed a common market.  They agreed not to erect trade barriers between the various countries.  Well that made very good sense.  There must be an advantage in trade or people wouldn’t do it.  So other things being equal an agreement to facilitate trade is generally a profitable thing.  And of course if the fact changed an agreement can be terminated.  That is basic contract law.  If you don’t like a contract you can get out of it provided you fix any damage you cause.

Let’s say you have a contract with a dairy to provide them with a certain amount of hay on a regular basis at an agreed upon price to feed their horses.  Now they switch over to using trucks as do all the other dairies.  They might need to pay you for the trouble you have already taken for the next few loads of hay, but it is in nobody’s interest for you to keep forever hauling in hay that they will never use.  Any wisely written contract will make provisions ahead of time for breaking that contract – timely notice of an intended end is a good way to do it.

But when you execute somebody, things are quite different.  New facts may turn up indicating you executed the wrong person.  But you are stuck with your now acknowledged error.  This will always be a problem with executions.  There are those people who can be convinced that certain crimes are so terrible that a terrible punishment should be applied even at risk of error.  But I doubt anybody would disagree that such errors are regrettable. 

When a significant social change is introduced, it should be possible to treat it as a civil matter – like a contract – rather than as a criminal matter – like an execution. 

But the common market was trumped by a European Union complete with a common currency.  An entire bureaucracy was set up to oversee it.  Regulations were imposed that did such things as define exactly what kind of apples could be traded.  If you had an orchard with a few good trees of a unique kind of apple you had been selling locally, you had a choice.  You could embark on the very expensive process of getting your grove accepted as a kind of apple, or you could cut the trees and do something else with the land.  You could not go on selling the apples to local people as you always had.  I have heard Swedes lament that the bare cliffs overlooking the Kattegat Sea would become crowded with German summer homes.  The European Union was going to make that impossible to prevent. 

These are local matters perhaps, but the common currency affects everybody in Europe.  Since the different countries involved have discretion over many of their own policies it was always possible, nay inevitable, that some were going to become richer than others.  Now it appears that in spite of a number of bailouts, Greece is insolvent.  (How to Save the Euro ECONOMIST vol. 400 no. 8751 September 17, 2011 page 11)  Other countries are quite stressed.  The choices now are between continued bailouts from reluctant rich European countries on the one hand and letting Greece out of the European Union on the other hand.  That could lead to the breakup of the union and the end of the Euro as a currency.  Markets could be thrown into chaos.

Why chaos?  Because nobody knows exactly how breaking up the union or the currency or both would play out.  You see, when they set this monster up, there was no exit strategy.  No contingency plans were built into the agreement covering how the agreement could be terminated.

In other words, the Union was treated as a criminal matter, as an execution, rather than as a contract, which it obviously was. 

The moral is plain as pikestaff.  When you make a social change you must allow for reversing the change if it turns out to be a bad idea.  People should have known that from the unhappy experience of slavery.  If you are going to create such a legal monstrosity, just how will you change it if it doesn’t pan out?  If that one is too subtle, consider the question of seceding states.  The constitution is a contract, a deal, to which states subscribed.  Yet it contains no provision for breaking it up in the event that it does not work.  The wording is there in an amendment that specifies that anything not mentioned is the right of the people and of the states.  So secession is legal enough, but in the absence of specific language detailing just how it should be done there was a misunderstanding that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in a war between 1860 and 1864. 

The constitution is in effect treated as a criminal matter, but it is a civil one.

So any time someone proposes a social change, there must be an arrangement for terminating it.  Immigration is a case in point.  The US is so lax about enforcing our laws on the matter that our border with Mexico is better defended by the Mexicans than by us.  They recently found a tunnel running between the two counties.  Who found it?  The Mexicans did.  The impact of this collapse of the rule of law, the failure to maintain control over the border, has resulted in a lot of lawns looking better than they would otherwise and has resulted in needed money flowing from those who keep those lawns back to their families in the south.  But the impact on the two societies is immense.  An American born laborer must compete with an immigrant, and in the labor market that will depress his or her wages and quite likely make it impossible to find a job at all.  Meanwhile the impact in Mexican society is such that an enormous number of Mexican babies are in fact born in the United States; it might be most. 

It is fairly simple to look at laws or the failure of law and assign responsibility.  But the biggest, far the most serious, social change in the past few generations has been the change from a society in which marrying cousins was expected to one in which it is considered a Very Bad Thing.  That has meant that the extended family has broken up to the point where finding the way back may well be impossible.  The fertility issue is such that we have long been, and long will remain, below replacement fertility.  This is little known, which may be understandable, although I for one certainly do not understand how people can talk about much else. 

On the other hand, “Don’t punish people like you would criminals if they have done no crime,” should be obvious to all. 

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