What Is the Purpose of Law?

Consider two towns, of about the same population.
 One is named Coventry, the other Chester.
 Coventry hasn’t had a murder this year. Neither has Chester.
Coventry hasn’t had a break-in this year. Neither has Chester.
No felonies have been committed in Coventry this year. None in Chester, either. 

There were drunken and disorderly incidents in both towns. In Coventry, a couple of teenagers threw a rock through a drug store window, apparently on a dare. In Chester, a couple of teenagers were rounded up for setting up a corn-mash still up by the dam.  

So far, we could say that Coventry is a safe place to live, and so is Chester. The crime rate is about the same, and is negligible.  Law and order reign in both towns.
 Or do they? 

What I am trying to get at here is the limited usefulness of numerical evaluations in human affairs. I’ve said only how many crimes of various sorts were committed in Coventry and Chester, but I’ve said nothing about life in those places, and therefore I’ve said nothing about what even the criminal law is really about.

In Coventry, no one knows his neighbors. Everyone spends ten hours a day in front of a screen. The stores bristle with cameras and sensors.  Even street corners have surveillance devices, for collecting money from people who don’t come to a full stop. Coventry has a police force of about one man for every 500 citizens, and the police prowl neighborhoods in tinted-glass cars, all day and night. 

The schools in Coventry have armed guards, and the students’ lockers are subject to random search.  Every payment made by one Coventry resident to another, for services rendered, must be logged, subject to a thicket of tax laws at all governmental levels.

The people of Coventry scoff at virtue. They don’t trouble to marry. The convenience stores are stocked with porn, and ordinary grocery stores and doctors’ offices stock what once would have been considered pornographic, but is now met with a shrug. They produce no art or music worthy the name, nor do they play great music composed by others. There is no town band, no town parades, because no holidays sacred or civic are celebrated. There is no town baseball team, no town interest in the many sports boasted by the various schools.  There is, in short, no common life at all.

In Chester, everyone knows his neighbors, and his neighbors’ families back at least three generations. Everyone spends most of his time among other people, and much of it outdoors, on farms, in the town streets, in shops, in the iron mines, and on the canal. The only security device that any store has is a slide-bolt for the front door, but most of the time storeowners don’t even bother with it. People don’t need to lock their doors. A child who is still out at nine o’clock on a summer evening does not occasion a call to the police, first because he will be coming home soon, and second because there are no policemen.

        Chester-like: Bennington by Grandma Moses (1945)

There are no armed personnel at the school, which, not coincidentally, is right in the heart of the town. People pay cash for everything, and don’t ask for receipts, because only very rarely is a receipt needed.

There aren’t any original composers in Chester, but there’s a town band that can play John Philip Sousa, a Ladies’ Choir, a Men’s Choir, the Ladies’ Beneficent Society, and a Chautauqua Society for public education (that is, education of ordinary people), a Philosophical Lyceum, mainly peopled by argumentative young men, and the Chester Browns, a ball club that competes against the Roxbury Reds and the Bethlehem Batsmen and the Belvidere Braves. 

Life isn’t perfect in Chester, by a long shot. Some men drink too much and trade fists in the street. One woman had to be instructed about strong drink by her husband and pastor. There’s a Temperance Society meeting every couple of weeks, pressing for laws against all consumption of alcohol, and recruiting both men and women to swear off the stuff, for the good of their families and town.

There’s a lot of talk of sinning, too, in Chester – there must be, to witness the churches filled for hours on a Sunday, and the very high esteem in which powerful and unimpeachable preachers are held. When the Reverend Horton of the Congregational Church died last year, he was given a parade worthy of a military hero, and the men of the Cincinnati Club came out in full uniform to the graveyard to give him a rifle salute.

There are no playgrounds in Chester, but there are children; the town is crawling with them. After school and chores, they are everywhere, at all seasons. They play rounders in the street, slide down snow covered hills in the winter, hunt mushrooms, climb trees, fish, build little cabins in the woods, collect birds’ nests, catch butterflies, play pranks, get into scuffles, fall in love – and once in a while do things that earn them a whipping, with birch switches or a real leather whip. 

There are plenty of playgrounds in Coventry, but they are usually empty. We cannot evaluate Coventry (where I live) and Chester (where my wife’s great-grandparents lived) without seeing them whole; and that means that we cannot judge the wisdom or effectiveness of their laws looking only at numbers. 

Because the purpose of law is not like that of a machine. Criminal law, for instance, does not exist simply to deter people from committing crimes and punishing them when they do. It exists also to teach. It assumes its place among the other laws and the customs of a people, which are meant, in the end, to secure a good life: to help make people good.

Chester is a better place to live, because its laws and customs are better: it has better people. And that, no number can capture.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.