Gibbon (And O’Brian) On Too Many Lawyers


This is Gibbon, quoted in Patrick O’Brian’s The Reverse of the Medal by the character Dr Stephen Maturin, who then speaks:

‘”It is dangerous to entrust the conduct of nations to men who have learned from their profession to consider reason as the instrument of dispute, and to interpret the laws according to the dictates of private interest; and the mischief has been felt, even in countries where the practice of the bar may deserve to be considered as a liberal occupation.”

‘He thought—and he was a very intelligent man, of prodigious reading—that the fall of the Empire was caused at least in part by the prevalence of lawyers. Men who are accustomed over a long series of years to supposing that whatever can somehow be squared with the law is right—or it not right then allowable—are not useful members of society; and when they reach positions of power in the state they are noxious. They are people for whom ethics can be summed up by the collected statues.’

Gibbon would have agreed that “lawyers” include regulators and modern-day bureaucrats (many of whom are trained lawyers). The Authoritarian (these days read: progressive, leftist) believes that the law and morality are one, an ancient and diseased fallacy as ineradicable and as harmful as rats. This is why she seeks to enlarge the law to encompass all manner of activity, and of thought. Their well known slogan is “Whatever is not mandatory is forbidden!”

Help me. What group is it that constantly, loudly, nervously, and boorishly insists, at every opportunity, of their collective rationality and reason?

Skip it. Nobody needs another lesson on the left’s zeal for shackling, but what is less known is how progressive policy drives excesses on the right. Men who understand that the law is everything, and who know no other morals, will push that law to its extreme. This causes a natural reaction and encourages a greater tightening of the bonds. The process is iterative and ends only when the knots become so burdensome that life is strangled.

The law does not forbid a man from maximizing short-term profit by firing large swaths of employees who only yesterday he called “family.” It is natural to pity the dispossessed and to despise the (family) man, but the inclination to force the State (with the help of lawyers) to punish the man causes more harm than good.

The man is punished, but he feels aggrieved more than shamed, and thus seeks (with the help of lawyers) to further test the limits of the law, which causes more excess. And so on.

Through it all the State is seen as Arbiter, the Supreme Entity. This belief is encouraged by both sides. But people forget the State is made of people, especially those people who falsely believe in the equality of law and morality. Like lawyers.

Solution? A fundamental change in how we view the world. How do we bring it about? Don’t know. Blog posts? Your ideas?


  1. Dan Kurt

    re: Lawyers: ” A fundamental change in how we view the world. How do we bring it about?” WMB

    America has had its 200 or so years; it has shot its wad. Enjoy the ride over the cliff as much as one can . Read Glubb’s essay: . A short introduction to it is .

    After the fall, what is left of America will experience a new paradigm.

    Dan Kurt

  2. Paul W

    Bravo on this article. Here in the Heartland, we had a bit of a controversy when a candidate(attorney) took issue with the notion a senior senator(not an attorney) would be the ranking member of the judiciary committee if re-elected. He inadvertently raised the real question – then why do we think attorneys should lead anything OTHER than the judiciary committee?

    Some other comments regarding the law and the state from an economist.

  3. Gary

    W.F. Buckley tried to halt the urge to immanentize the eschaton by grounding and centering conservative thought. But his efforts weren’t strong enough to overcome the human gullibility and short-sightedness so easily exploited through the levers of education, media, and technology. Education doesn’t change the heart — which is what is required to change the world view. So the only answer is: “Except a man be born again …” The method: one heart at a time through honesty, compassion, and charity (old sense).

  4. jake-the-rake

    Well I already suggested it a while ago, but lawyers need to be replaced by cooks, or rather theologians capable of transposing the questions of governance to the realm of food. Laws must be imagined as edible substances… That must be served and eaten.

  5. Sheri

    I’ve always thought it would be fun to put all lawyers together on an island and see how long they last. They could sue each other, while hopefully some of them would figure out you have to have food and shelter and would seek such. Otherwise, it would be a very short experiment.

    Dan: Finally found the essay you linked to. Will check it out when I have more time. I’m inclined to agree with you. American was an experiment and people just did not want to do what it takes to stay free. Once they found out they could appropriate other’s earnings and control other’s behaviours through laws, they became lazy and the experiment started to crumble. Humans may indeed lack whatever it takes (rational thought, work, etc) to actually live free. It seems they love babysitters and handouts, thus avoiding all blame for how bad their life turns out.

  6. The founding fathers of the U.S. made federal judges into little dictators by giving them lifetime tenure.To break the stranglehold of the lawyers, make federal judge an elective office. Require federal judges to stand for re-election every five years and set term limits of 20 years for them. Democratize the making of federal laws via a process that is copied from California’s initiative process but with features of it that have proved not to work eliminated or revised.

  7. Ray

    In colonial time lawyers were despised and some colonies actually prohibited lawyers. Seems like a good idea to me.

    “The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.”
    ― Charles Dickens, Bleak House

  8. Scotian

    Ray, “In colonial time lawyers were despised and some colonies actually prohibited lawyers.”

    Could you give me a reference (link)? I am curious as to the context. I can imagine many of the oligarchies or feudal lords would not want lawyers pleading cases back in England.

  9. anona


    “The founding fathers of the U.S. made federal judges into little dictators by giving them lifetime tenure.To break the stranglehold of the lawyers, make federal judge an elective office. Require federal judges to stand for re-election every five years and set term limits of 20 years for them. Democratize the making of federal laws via a process that is copied from California’s initiative process but with features of it that have proved not to work eliminated or revised.”

    No. I don’t want to trade one bunch of tyrants for another. Democracy combined with unlimited government power has been the cause of America’s decline, as per my understanding.

    How can you cite the Founders without bothering to consider the oft-repeated complaint of “if only they would just obey the Constitution” ? What about natural rights and all that jazz?

  10. @Terry Oldberg
    I’m not sure I agree with your proposition Terry. Just think of the costs of campaigning–only the independently wealthy and those pandering to sources of campaign funds (unions, George Soros) would be electable. A better solution might be, as is done in Pennsylvania, have appointed judges come up for electoral review after an initial term, and in subsequent terms thereafter. Most have been approved by the electorate, but a very few not.

    And I also disagree with the general tenor of the post and the replies. The law and lawyers keep us safe from those in political power. It was lawyers who fought the contraception mandate for religious groups. I have a son and a daughter–at opposite ends of the political spectrum–who are lawyers and they are both good people.

    Gilbert and Sullivan put it best: “The Law is the embodiment of everything that’s excellent” (Iolanthe)

  11. Sheri

    Bob: Currently, nothing seems to be keeping us safe from those in power. Laws are ignored, circumvented and just made up if those in charge want. It was the intent of the law to keep us safe, as it was the intent of a free press to keep us free, which is totally faling us at this point also. Then there’s the “get free money from drug companies” lawyers, the “sue them all” lawyers, etc. There are some lawyers that are excellent and we cannot function without them. However, as the society deteriorates, so do those who were put in place to protect it.

  12. Ye Olde Statisician

    In Pennsylvania (and other States) the judges are not only elected, they must be re-confirmed in subsequent elections.

    It hasn’t made much difference.

    Judges subject to the enthusiasms and madnesses of the crowds do not necessarily make better judges.

  13. Sheri, I wonder whether you might be taking an extremely pessimistic view of what’s happening. Granted, politicians and bureaucratic officials who are lawyers are subverting the law. But it is lawyers who are fighting against them. And then finally, there’s the old saying, “the people get the government they deserve” (not that you and I deserve). Which is to say, we (the people) have to elect politicians who will reform tort laws, clean out the bureaucracies. If we (the people–not you and I) can’t do that, then we will get the government and laws that are due to our inaction.

  14. In California, we elect our judges and have the power to amend the constitution without going through our legislature or governor. This works pretty well. To run for judge incurs the cost of putting up a Web site that presents one’s platform and lists one’s creditionals: perhaps $100. One does not need George Soros or other billionaire to run for judge.

    The availability of the initiative process limits the power of our lobbyists to produce laws serving the selfish interests of these lobbyists’ clients. This process works well enough for measures that will not result in significant expenditures but not for measures that do. One needs a legislature, evidently, for measures of the latter type for the purpose of prioritizing candidates for spending tax money and balancing the budget.

  15. Sheri

    Bob—Not extremely pessimistic. Kind of waiting for the end of the year to decide. Lack of pessimism may have contributed to the mess–as stated, people kept thinking nothing bad would ever happen in the US, by magic of the Constitution or something. There seemed to be a distinct lack of understanding of how much work there is to maintaining a democracy. However, as you noted, people get the government they deserve, to a large exent (some just get dragged under by the momentum, in spite of trying to fight it) and it seems likely that people will be very surprised when what is deserved arrives. Maybe not—maybe that’s how one knows it’s over. Not sure.
    I’m probably more of a realist than a pessimist. There is a point at which enough factors add up to say we blew it and a realist acknowledges this. It’s just the way things work. Sometimes we win, sometimes people run for the handout and quit the game.

  16. Brandon Gates


    I’ve always thought it would be fun to put all lawyers together on an island and see how long they last.

    A priest, a doctor and a lawyer are stranded together on a desert island after a shipreck. They notice a lifeboat has survived the wreck, but that getting to it requires swimming across a shark-infested lagoon.

    The priest says, “I cannot risk it … neither of you can administer last rites if I am mortally injured.”

    The doctor says, “I cannot risk it either … neither of you are trained in the arts of medicine if I am seriously injured.”

    The lawyer says, “Hey guys, no problem. Wait right here for me, I’ll be back shortly with the boat.” Not one shark made any attempt to block his progress and as per his promise, he returns shortly with the boat.

    The priest exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” The doctor asked, “What scientific explanation can account for your success?”

    The lawyer shrugged causually, “Shucks, it was just professional courtesy.”

  17. Terry, the $100 estimate for a website seems to me unrealistic. Our son had been considering running for a judge in Pennsylvania (this would not be one of the higher levels, but would correspond to a county jurisdiction–higher than a magisterial judge). Taking into account funds for TV, billboards, etc., it would run of the order of $200,000. Such was spent by one fellow, whose father gave him the money, saying it would be his inheritance, and if he lost….ts…no more to come. Alas, he did lose. And with the election, who knows whether the populace can elect a good judge. Look at the recent presidential, senate races in Nevada and California, the representative elected from San Francisco and the Governor elected in California.

  18. Sherri, if not the law, then what? As I implied in the previous post, we need good lawyers to defend us from bad lawyers. And if people don’t elect good officials, then it is up to the minority of good lawyers to attempt to salvage good in government. Judges were convicted in Wilkes-Barre in a “Kids-for-Cash” scandal (sending kids without due process to detention homes run by a private company in return for kickbacks from the company) and have been convicted for other scandals, so there are legal remedies for malfeasance.

  19. Sheri

    Bob: I am realistic and know that some law is necessary. There are legal remedies for malfeasance, but there’s also a lot of laws ignored (as is the case in immigration right now, along with Obamacare). There are hundreds of “personal injury” lawsuits based on nothing but the hope the jury will “stick it to the big rich company”. This is a result of the population being dumbed down (few could explain how one determines causality) and greed. It matters not there are warnings for side effects for drugs, instructions for use of products, etc. If someone is hurt, someone rich must pay. Who are the lawyers that stop this? Where are the lawyers that stop the government? I do realize what the logical outcome is when laws become meaningless and it’s not desirable. If there are not enough people to stop the mess before laws become ignored and unfairly applied, bad outcomes occur. I hope there are enough good people left in law and politics, but I am really starting to doubt that there are.

  20. Ye Olde Statisician

    I recollect that in Shakespeare’s time, the word “lawyer” meant someone who made the laws, what we would call a “legislator.” Instead of lawyers they had barristers and solicitors. So colonial aversion to lawyers might easily mean aversion to legislators.

  21. Bob Kurland:

    In our area most electoral decisions about judges are about appointments to county courts. There is no TV or billboard advertising. We don’t receive flyers in the mail from any of the candidates. The only way in which I can get information about the candidates is by accessing their Web sites. This costs the candidates virtually nothing.

    It is interesting that in Pennsylvania one has to spend $200,000 to be competitive for a judgeship. In a more ideal world than the one we live in, this corrupting influence could be removed by limits on campaign contributions. In the real world, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that limits of this kind are illegal under the U.S. constitution because they limit free speech. I’d like to be in a position to vote the judges who made this decision out of office.

  22. anona

    “The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!

    If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.” – Bastiat, The Law

    Example 1:

    “In determining whether a REASONABLE SUSPICION exists, due weight should be given to the specific reasonable inferences that a NOMINATOR is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his/her experience and not on unfounded suspicions or hunches. Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit.”

    Example 2:
    “The US does not torture”

    Example 3:
    Just Google for William Norman Grigg, and sate your curiosity about law, its enforcers, and its defenders.

    Example 4:
    Bail-outs, bail-ins, screw the bondholders, MFG … what contracts?

    Example 5:
    Obamacare “penaltax” shenanigans

    It’s depressing… the good guys are countable on my fingers 🙁

  23. Terry Oldberg, I agree with you about limiting financial contributions from people, corporations and most particularly unions. There should be, as in Great Britain and Canada, strict limits on campaign expenditures. The parliamentary system in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations imposes time limits on election campaigning, usually of the order of 60 days or so, and that would help to limit campaign expenditures. Also, public financing of campaigns would minimize the stultifying effect of donors (educational unions, public employee unions).
    And here are some suggestions that will never be enacted, but would improve the quality of the electorate:
    1) literacy and history tests for voters–voters should be required to pass the test for US Citizenship.
    2) minimum age for voting raised to 30 years.
    3) proof of citizenship (ID laws).

  24. CB

    Give everyone a KJV bible: the new ones have been tainted and are simply s***.
    You can have a new one, every year, if you ask for it.

    Force every single citizen to read it – administer a (new) test every 12 months: if you fail, you pay more tax (lets say 20% more). Whatever benefits you may receive, you get 20% less.

    The bible teaches all you ever wanted to know about evil, and those who practice it. It would also give everyone a universal platform towards common understanding – serial liars would stand out like a sore thumb.
    Sure, there will be those who read things differently: but there are limits to that; there too, the serial liars will stand out.

    This would work, you know. Problem is, the Roman Catholic Church would never allow this to be done – they would be the greatest losers: their entire church and all their crap is quite unbiblical, after all.


  25. Scotian

    I like your suggestions, Bob, although I have some reservations with the first one. Who tests the testers? We see what has happened with common core.

  26. john robertson

    Perhaps the start of a solution is to define the benefit of government.
    Without a concept of governments value to a citizen, we are unable to argue for restricting the cost.
    Consider the benefit of civilization versus tribalism.
    Tribalism is our natural state, we are most comfortable with people we know and share common cause.
    Civilization, defined? as a state whereby strangers can cooperate to build structures and trade, with the confidence of a continuity.
    These are the benefits of having equality before the law, rule of law and government to maintain and protect these principles.
    Therefore civilization is a shared illusion.
    The only valuable service govt provides is the performance of a mass act to promote and protect the illusion of civilization.
    Think of this as a Morality Play, in which the actors have begged the citizens for the opportunity to perform the required roles.
    However once the actors start ad-libbing their roles, failing to perform their required tasks, the cost of government rises exponentially.
    Today the cost of government has exceeded the benefit of civilization.
    Hence the mass dropout of skilled workers, a surging underground economy and open contempt for government officials.

    If we accept this concept, of government being a morality play, necessary to check the bandits and encourage the weak-minded , then some interesting thought occur.
    First, the punishment for transgression of the role, must be dramatic.
    Bad actors, treason through idiocy, kleptocracy, the appointments of fools and bandits..These must be seen to be wrong and punished with flair.
    Remember these elected and appointed players, volunteered.. begged in fact for the opportunity to play these roles.
    There can be no mercy for actions that undermine civilization.

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