Law and Government: A Review of Whatever Happened to Justice?

Dear Reader,

I have been guilty of not prereading everything I give to my kids. With four of them all reading a number of different books, this is often impossible. But in this case, it appears I really should have. I noticed earlier in the school year that my older son was getting some odd ideas as he worked through Richard J. Maybury’s Whatever Happened to Justice?, but I still had him persevere and finish the book. Along the way we did discuss the bits he was repeating that I disagreed with, but, honestly, it took a while for me to convince me son of my position, so strong was the effect of what he had read. The subject was dropped for  a while when he finished the book, but now as I plan for the coming year, I have to decide if I will have my daughter read this book or if I need to find something else. So I figured it was time for me to finally read it myself.

Whatever Happened to Justice? is the second book in a series known as the Uncle Eric books which seem to be quite popular with homeschoolers, particularly conservative Christian ones. My two older children have both read the first one in the series, Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?, which deals with economics. Though I only skimmed that volume, it had seemed quite good and they appeared to learn quite a bit from it. Which is part of the reason, other than laziness and time constraints, that I did not bother to preread the Justice book. I viewed it as being from a well-respected series that we had used before and I wasn’t concerned about its contents.

Mayhew’s Argument

Mayhew defines his political philosophy as  juris naturalis and is in favor of very limited government, ideally even of no government. There is quite a lot of what he says that I would either agree with or have no reason to disagree with. But I do think that his overall outlook, his world view, if you like, is different from mine. And, more importantly, his outlook  is not biblical. His view of law and government is not in line with that found in the Word of God and his view of humanity is also off.

Let me begin by summarizing as best I can what Mayhew has to say about law and government. Mayhew believes in a Higher Power (though, as we will see, this is not the Christian God not does it seem to be the God of Judaism or Islam either) who has created what he terms Natural Law and placed it in the minds of men so that they are able through reason and scientific thought to discern its principles. The laws which people thus discern he calls Common Law. Common Law, Mayhew says, is founded upon two basic principles from which all the others derive. They are:

  • “Do all you have agreed to do.”
  • “Do not encroach on other persons or their property.”

(Justice, p. 40 and elsewhere)

These two, he says, are agreed upon by peoples from “all major religions and philosophies” (p. 35).

Mayhew idealizes Europe under Roman rule when the government was far away and there was little local control. During this time, he says, there were judges who would settle disputes, using their reason to discover the principles of Common Law. A key point for him is that they would discover these principles which were part of the Natural Law, much as scientists discovered the Law of Gravity and other scientific laws.

In contrast, today, Mayhew says, we have only political law. When our country was founded, our forefathers still believed in Common Law, but over time our government has grown to such an extent that what we have now are politicians who make up political laws. That is, they create rather than discern laws and they do so to further their own political power. Another key point for Mayhew is that political power corrupts. And he seems to believe that it always corrupts; that no one is immune from its effects.

The best government for Mayhew governs least. His desire for America would be a return to a time like was had under British Common Law (at least as he sees that time; I am skeptical that it was as good as he says). He says we need intelligent people to return to the principles of Common Law and to use their reason to discern principles that affect us today so that we can resolve the many undecided issues we face today including abortion, capital punishment, drugs, and many others. Even wars, he believes, could be avoided if nations, like people, obeyed the principles of Common Law. And this is another major point for him — that nations should be held to the same principles as individuals. Taxation he sees as encroachment by the government and therefore contrary to Common Law. A couple of final points: he eschews democracy which he says allows the majority to oppress the minority and he bolsters his claims with evidence that the countries which have the least government interference have the strongest economies.

To sum up, then, these are Mayhew’s main points:

  • There is a Higher Power — though Mayhew rarely refers to Him (her? it?) as God and does not define him/it at all.
  • There is a Natural Law, given by this Higher Power, which we can discover.
  • Human reason and scientific thought can derive the right principles — these principles are Common Law.
  • All peoples agree on the two basic principles (do what you say; don’t encroach) — he speaks of all major religions and philosophies agreeing but also says that, in the many, many talks he has given worldwide, he has never met an individual who disagrees with either of them.
  • Governments should be held to the same standards as individuals. Therefore governments also should not encroach.
  • Political power corrupts everyone.
  • Those societies which have the least government interference are best, meaning most economically prosperous, which shows that Mayhew’s philosophy is correct.

My Response

The first two points above I agree with – though I would word them differently. There is a God and He has a Law which He has placed to some extent in the hearts of men. Certainly, He holds all men up to its standards whether they have overt knowledge of it or not. It is when we come to the third point that my disagreement with Mayhew begins. Human nature is fallen in all its aspects. Though we have some sort of innate knowledge of the Law of God, it is corrupted. Our reason is also fallen and cannot be completely trusted by us. Indeed, people are quite adept at reasoning themselves into all sorts of sinful behavior. Thus, human reason in its current state is not sufficient to guide us infallibly to correct principles.

The two principles which Mayhew cites as the most basic ones are good principles, and as he states, they are biblical. The Old Testament and the New both sum up the Law of God in two principles; but these are not identical to Mayhew’s. In the New Testament book of Matthew, we read:

“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40)

Notice that the second commandment cited by Jesus is essentially identical to Mayhew’s principle of not encroaching. However, in both the Old and New testaments, the first and foremost commandment regards our behavior not towards our fellow man but towards God Himself. The second flows out of the first and in biblical terms has little meaning without the first as it is our love for God, and His for us, that allows us to love our fellow man. Nonetheless, I myself would not want to legislate religion or love for God so I would concede to Mayhew that the second commandment is a better basis for human law.

I am very skeptical of Mayhew’s assertion that all people agree to his two basic principles. They may be found in most major religions as he says and it may be also that most people would agree with them when they are put to them. But I suspect that in practical matters there is not such wide agreement. There is a lot that may or may not be included in encroachment and there is a lot as well in the word “persons.” For example, many Islamic countries even today are well-known for restricting the rights of females, even of allowing their most basic rights to be violated with impunity. While a rulers from such a country might stand before us and say that, yes, he agrees witsh te two basic principles, he may mean very different things by them.

We turn then to Mayhew’s statements about government and political power. I am a little surprised, I have to say, by how fervently he maintains that political power corrupts. Indeed, it can. The Bible acknowledges this when Israel asks for a king — God warns them how the king will multiply horses and wives for himself at the expense of his people. But this is a far cry from saying that political power always corrupts everyone so that all politicians are always working for their own benefit.

I also do not agree that governments must be held to the same standards as individuals. It is beyond the scope of this post to look at all the Bible has to say about governments (another post perhaps?), but suffice it to say that the Bible does recognize that governments have powers (like imposing capital punishment) that individuals do not. It also implies that taxation is acceptable.

Finally, there is Mayhew’s evidence to support his view — that the most limited governments produce the most prosperous societies. This may be true; I would venture to say that it is likely true. But I am not sure that the most economically prosperous societies are inherently the best ones. We must ask first what the measure of success for a society is. I have always heard that some very socialistic nations in Europe report the highest levels of happiness among their citizens nor would their citizens willing trade what they have in goverment services for the freedoms we have here. I don’t think happiness would be my measure of what is best either but it is at least as valid as economic prosperity as a measure of success.

Conclusions

My biggest conclusion from all this is that Mayhew’s philosophy is not biblical. He never claims that it is, of course, though he does claim that his two basic principles are in line with the Bible and he does tend to assume that members of all major religions and philosophies would agree with his arguments. But I think the real key here is that Mayhew has underlying ideas, wrong ideas, which inform his philosophy. He criticizes modern-day Americans who look to the government to solve all their problems. I agree that we as a people have a tendency to do so and that it is wrong of us; it is a kind of idolatry that arises from our lack of reliance on God. But Mayhew himself does rather the opposite — he blames all our problems on the government. On the one hand, his view of human nature is too high — he seems to think that if we only could return to Common Law and to a time without government that all would be good and that people would regulate themselves well. On the other hand, he has too low a view of politicians, saying that all those who enter politics are utterly corrupt. We all need in our philosophies to account for the evil in the world, and particularly in ourselves and our fellow man. Mayhew’s solution is to say that while most people are capable of being good and doing good in the right circumstances that political power is the repository of all evil. When I looked at various homeschooling philosophies, I found that for many of them, what they believe comes down to their view of human nature — Are we basically good or evil? If good, where does the evil we see around us come from? So too I find for Mayhew that the point where he goes wrong seems to be at the very foundation of his thinking in his view of human nature.

I do not completely regret having my son read this book; it has provided us with some useful discussions — and of course, at least one very long blog post for me :), but I do not think my daughter will be reading it nor could I in good conscience recommend it to other homeschooling parents. As an adult, I am learning to read books critically and to discern the author’s’ assumptions, but it would be a lot to ask a high schooler to read this book that critically and to pick out the good ideas in it from the bad.

Now if anyone has other book recommendations for government, I am all ears . . .

Nebby

 

 

 

3 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting. I must admit I’ve only skimmed it but my son just this week queried me on Mayhew’s beliefs – he’s read about 3/4 of the book. I also have his WW1 & 2 books which I put aside a couple of years ago after a brief look & I have some reservations about those. I’d definitely pre-read them.

    Reply

  2. […] husband, who is an economist, picked the economics curriculum. We had tried the Uncle Eric series which seems very popular and were very disappointed with it.  He is as I write this at the iGovern camp through Generation Joshua and seems to be having a good […]

    Reply

  3. […] My 7th’s grader’s math will be Life of Fred Pre-Algebra with Economics. I am also going to have him read Richard Maybury’s What Ever Happened to Penny Candy? I feel I should say, though, that I am not a fan of Maybury’s. I know a lot of homeschoolers use him and I am okay with this first of his books but I really regret letting my oldest read Whatever Happened to Justice? Maybury has a definite viewpoint and it is not mine. Before you get into his books, I’d recommend looking into what he believes. You can see my specific thoughts on that here. […]

    Reply

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