As a child growing up in New York I realized there were two sets of rules: the written and the unwritten, the spoken and the unspoken. To put it in the Bronx vernacular: there was the thing everyone said they did when they went to church on Sunday; then there were the things they really did.
Recently, I was on the phone with a major venture capitalist that I will refer to as Bernie Salkowitz to protect his identity. Bernie was talking about who gets venture money and who does not. Then the subject meandered on to human nature. “People, being human,” he said, “never do what they say they’re going to do. They say one thing and do another. This is America. Americans are, after all, human. They want to break the law. It’s healthy to want to break the law. When you think about it, you should break the law.”
Call it another American paradox, but don’t admit your predilection for wanting to break the law in a public forum. Frankly, being compelled to honestly and righteously break the law is not something we can openly discuss in our culture; it is somewhat akin to being a sin. There are people who would not understand and it is not your job to educate them. Some secrets are best kept to one’s self. A desire to break the law should not be shared with, say… law enforcement officials, anyone affiliated with a political party, your teacher, your boss, your co-workers, your clients, and anyone who might be inclined to use negative information against you—this latter category includes most people.
Regarding law, there are many sets of rules that have been recorded since the beginning of time. The Code of Hammurabi speaks of harsh consequences such as whacking off whole body parts and limbs. The Justinian Code, another set of Draconian measures, set the tone for the Greco-Roman world that had their time and place but no longer present as the source code for modernity. You don’t have to go far to learn of current accounts of laws as severe as the Codes of Justinian or Hammurabi. Muslim women whose only sin is the desire to go to school are stoned to death by the Taliban. Men in the Arab world who dishonor their families by working for the wrong tribal leader are put to death in the most gruesome fashion possible in the local town square.
Then there are the secular decrees that frame the ideal for human aspirations and liberty, and provide the foundation for Western culture: Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, and The U.S. Constitution. Never be deceived by thinking laws are solely architected to protect society. Codes, laws, rules, fair or not, religious or not, share one underlying principal in common: to control the inherent unruly nature of the human being. And you can be sure that the rationale behind most laws is intended to benefit the Divine Right of Kings. The saving grace of American culture is its historical legacy built on dissidents, revolutionaries, and religious zealots who left other countries in pursuit of freedom.
The American cultural imperative is living in a state that is constantly on the verge of erupting into anarchy. Everyone is on the take and everyone has a price. As Americans, we like to create laws but we also like to break them. Finding a loophole, dodging the bullet, it is the American way. We are a cowboy culture. There are individuals who have inherited the divine right of kings, who really like law because they are in control and they want to retain their power.
As much as Americans uphold the law, there is a pervading distrust of any law. At the heart of American culture, our democratic values enable us all to voice a healthy skepticism of law, social order, and the government. It is part of our enduring American legacy to question authority. Despite a penchant for authority, it is still a fundamental drive in every American to want to break the law.
An underlying American value is to evaluate every law for the sole purpose to consider breaking the law. Every day, Americans encounter laws they choose to break. The decision whether or not to break a law is usually governed by a risk analysis. We ask ourselves questions: How much trouble will I get into if I get caught? Is breaking this law worth the risk of my getting caught? My advice: break the law but don’t get caught.
Most of the time, I am a responsible adult and I do follow the law. Advising people to break the law sounds like a terrible thing to say to honest people. However, when you consider that the whole notion of law is rooted in authority that tends to control the populace to benefit the rich, it is not so strange after all. Emerson said, “Our leaders are slaves to public opinion and do not make decisions based on integrity. They are all about winning and power and not about doing the right thing.” Whether or not you choose to break the law needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to establish the true merits of the law and to examine why it was made. Ask yourself: who will benefit?
In Le Père Goriot published in Revue de Paris in 1834, Honore Balzac said, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” He did not elaborate on the type or size of crime. Crime to one person might be civil disobedience to another. I’m not encouraging you to arbitrarily break the law. I can only emphasize that it is important to break the law when the law is simply not working. You have to weigh the risks. Assess the benefit to you (as well as others) against the potential outcome. Some laws were made to keep people safe and some were not. Some laws were made for economic and political reasons and can be a form of arbitrary oppression. A brief historical rendition of oppressive American law would include: Slavery, discrimination against women, minorities and gays, the poor, the mentally ill, and unfair treatment to workers through the Industrial Age. Even in America people have lost their liberty and have been treated unfairly in the name of the law!
The American Judicial system has designed law so it can be broken for a higher good. Breaking the law with honor is based on the principles of civil disobedience. Recall the examples made by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi, who employed non-violent actions to break the law. Always remember, people make laws. American laws are alive and fluid; and they were designed to evolve over time and be changed. Instead of breaking the law, you can take initiative and make change happen. If you have the time, motivation, and money, you can change the law by working through the system. But if you don’t have the time, motivation, and money, there is an alternative. You can learn to become sneaky smart.
Excerpted from Patricia Vaccarino's book American Spin.