We’re All Criminals Now

For those of you who have never found The Dilbert Blog, I highly recommend it. Scott Adams is one of of the few people in this world who looks around and asks “why?” at just about everything. He further has the talent (unlike me) to make the questions hilarious.

On Saturday, he asked “Is Copyright Violation Stealing”, with a hope to create fodder for his Sunday post. Specifically, you take something that a lot of people do which is illegal, tell them they’re doing something illegal (and therefore bad), and then watch as they try to justify their position.

If you’ve read anything about experiments to produce cognitive dissonance, you know this was the perfect setup. You can produce dissonance by putting a person in a position of doing something that is clearly opposed to his self image. Then wait for his explanation. The explanation will seem absurd to anyone who doesn’t share the dissonance. In this case the model that produced it was…

1. Good people are not criminals.
2. Criminals break laws.
3. I break copyright laws.
4. But since I know I am a good person, my reason why it’s okay to violate copyright laws is (insert something absurd).

The fascinating thing about cognitive dissonance is that it’s immune to intelligence. No matter how smart you are, you can’t think your way out of it. Once your actions and your self image get out of sync, the result is an absurd rationalization. You can see that in the comments.

The problem with his theory, and why I don’t feel the cognitive dissonance he is trying to induce, is because I don’t agree with premise 1*. There are plenty of good people who are criminals. In fact, we’re all criminals, as Ayn Rand said a long time ago:

The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.

Simply put, there are so many things in this country that are illegal that I think anyone over the age of 2 is probably a criminal. Thus, the premise that good people aren’t criminals is mistaken. Likewise, it’s converse, that criminals are bad people is also mistaken. He is trying to force people into believing that because “criminals are bad”, violating a law makes you a bad person. The problem with such an argument is that it ignores the enormous quantity of bad laws.

This is an argument that is often faced when illegal immigration is brought up. The anti-immigrant folks use this premise to suggest that if someone came here illegally, they’re bad people. After all, good people don’t break laws, and these people obviously did. In order to bolster their argument, they’ll point out the many illegal immigrants who have broken more serious laws in order to equate breaking immigration law with committing violent acts. When you try to pin them down on this distinction, they get angry.

For example, you point out that speeding is a crime, and so anyone who speeds is a lawbreaker. Then you can quickly point out the number of people who have committed violent crimes and also speed, as if the two are equivalent. When you do this, you put the arguer in a quandary, because they can’t reconcile the fact that their own lawbreaking (speeding) doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, but that their argument asserts just such a thing with illegal immigrants.

Because I know how many bad laws are out there, I can be called a criminal by just about anyone, yet easily go to bed at night and rest easy. It’s not that I don’t feel remorse for doing bad things, it’s that I don’t feel remorse for breaking the law. In fact, I quite enjoy breaking stupid laws. The key is understanding the difference between law and morality; between what is legal/illegal and what is right/wrong. I must often determine the right action in complex situations, and to the extent that this coincides with what is legal, I do what is legal. But where they don’t coincide, I do what I believe is right.

Now, this is a difficult idea to explain to most people, and when you do, you can get into some serious debates. After all, right and wrong tend to be pretty subjective terms, because right and wrong are simply manifestations of values, and values are not consistent across people and cultures. At best, you can come up with law that’s pretty good (i.e. laws against murder), and at worst, you can end up with all sorts of hell (i.e. Jim Crow). In both cases, the laws are a reflection of local values. But it’s plainly clear that the latter are bad laws, and thus breaking bad laws doesn’t make you a bad person, even if it makes you a criminal.

I’d say that in the United States, the regulatory state has made us stray far from law which acts as an arbiter of right from wrong, and as such, many laws can be quite morally ignored. Thus, there are quite often times where the law restricts us from doing things that aren’t “wrong” in any sense of the word, and in fewer cases, in order to do what would be generally considered “right” requires that we break the law. In the former case, a moral person will not feel any cognitive dissonance about his self image when breaking the law. In the latter case, a moral person should do the right thing, and may even have a duty to break the law.

* FWIW, I’m not saying that copyright laws are bad laws, nor am I saying that pirating music isn’t theft. I’m simply saying that the groups of “actions which are illegal” and “actions which are wrong” only partially intersect.

  • trumpetbob15

    As the illegal immigrant people have told us, there are no illegal immigrants, simply undocumented workers. Thus, there are no illegal downloads, simply undocumented ones. Is this an excuse? Probably. But what makes a copyright law so much more important than a law deciding who is a citizen? They both are in the Constitution under the heading “Powers of Congress.”

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Adam Selene

    Brad, you’re a rational anarchist, whether you like it, or not.

  • OneifbyLand

    It can no longer be denied unlike past immigration
    to the US today Mexico is doing everything it can
    to create a MEXICAN NATION within the borders of the USA.Aiding,abetting,urging and calling illegal immigrants to the USA heros. Those immigrants who
    have played by the rules are being made fools of.
    Illegals from Mexico who want to subvert our laws should never be given citizenship.

  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany


    Did you even read the post? Your comment is completely off-topic.

  • Ted


    Can you name a single person in the US of A who has not broken a single law? I do not think I can. I’ve broken several, sometimes without knowing they exist.

    There are good laws. There are bad laws. I am fine with immigration.

    I used to say that I did not like Illegal Immigration, but that I was fine with Legal Immigration. I have since changed my mind a bit. It’s actually not immigration, legal or otherwise that gets my dander up. It’s the fact that someone is here illegally and benefiting from things like Welfare, and Unemployment, and the like. However, I realize that that is mostly my dislike of things like Welfare. I think the programs are broken, and a waste of tax dollars that were unfairly taken from me.

    I do not feel that immigrants take my jobs. I am a highly skilled worker, but I have dug ditches before. And trust me; there is plenty of that work for anyone. Most people who do not have jobs do not have them because they are too proud to take day laborer positions.

    So, feel free to come and immigrate. I think it should be easy. I do not mind cheap. I do think, however, that if you come to the country, you should learn to speak the language. I would not expect to move to Japan without learning Japanese.

  • tarran

    I wonder what the ol’ Declaration of Indepenedence ahd to say on the subject:

    He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

    Ted, why the heck do you care whether someone can speak English coming to the U.S. or not? I have friends whose parents cannot speak a word of English (one whith Romanian parents, and one set whose parents only speak Korean). Yet, they are productive people who run businesses and make their communities more prosperous.

    Honestly, people will learn what they need to get by. If they can earn a living and support themselves without being able to understand me, more power to them.

  • Ted

    I care because my tax dollars go into programs for translation in government. Police officers, emergency personnel, government workes all have to bow down to these other languages, and it is comming right out of my pocket.

    Now, I said I believe they should learn. I have said nothing of making it mandatory for immigration. But I would not expect to move to another country and have them accomadate me. I have always chosen to pick up what language skills I can when I was living outside of the states. The Japan reference was listed, because I lived there for 4 years. Yes, I learned to speak enough Japanese to get by. But I should have no expectation of other people having to accomodate me when I am in their country.

    Now, my views may change with proper persuaion. As you can read from my previous post, my views have changed over the years to be fine with immigration, legal or otherwise.

    But show me where the value brought exceeds the amount stolen out of my pocket throught axes, to offer 300 different government lines and specialized workers just to talk to someone who did not want to bother to learn english. Please, do, and I will gladly reconsider my point of view.

  • Ted

    I do not have any problems with private business or owners learning the language of those they deal with. That is their choice. I respect their right to do so or not do so as they wish. I was fine when a Pizza chain in my area started also accepting pesos, because of all the latino workers who went to Mexico to visit family, and came back with pesos. I thought it was a smart business decision for them.

    But, I am pressed on your remark:
    “Honestly, people will learn what they need to get by. If they can earn a living and support themselves without being able to understand me, more power to them.”

    That is fine, however, when the government has to bend itself to deal with people who refuse to learn any of the language, they are wasting resources that the government is forcing me to pay for.