The Law’s ‘Majestic Equality’
Anatole France’s The Red Lily is best known for this ironic aphorism: ‘The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ The laws mentioned in this aphorism are open to two criticisms. The first criticism is that they forbid conduct that oughtn’t to be forbidden. The second criticism is that they unfairly place greater burdens of compliance on some (here, the poor) than on others (here, the rich). It may be onerous for the poor to comply with the law against, say, sleeping under bridges; not so for the rich. It is this second criticism that I read France as expressing, and it is the reach of this criticism that I explore in this essay. Specifically, I want to ask whether the second criticism may apply to a law even if the first criticism does not – whether there can be laws that are good in the sense that they forbid behavior that genuinely ought to be forbidden, but that are nonetheless unfair in the distribution of compliance burdens they yield. Some examples may tempt us to say ‘no.’ It may be more burdensome for thrill-seekers than for the rest of us to comply with laws against speeding, but that does not make speeding laws unfair. But I argue that the answer is ‘yes.’ Good laws can, and surprisingly often do, yield unfair distributions of compliance burdens. I conclude the essay by showing how remedies for this sort of unfairness might work.
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