In the early part of the Twentieth Century Lord John Moulton wrote that civil society is divided into three sections. One section is the land of the law, and its opposite is the land of absolute freedom. What is between the two he called the “middle land.”
The middle land is the land of customs, manners, traditions, and self-imposed rules. A person may give up a seat to and old man or a pregnant woman because it is customary to do so. If someone coughs, most people know to cover their mouth. If one’s shoes are muddy, people know to take them off before entering a house. These are not laws that have been formally passed by governments. They are part of common sense and courtesy that can be found in the middle land.
Moulton went on to say the greatness of a nation can me measured by the size of this middle land. If this is true, the greatness of most of the world is in a steep decline. Increasingly all manner of human behaviors are being formalized and regulated. Increasingly laws govern things both important and small, from how one should dress, to what one may say to another, to the use of private real estate, and the size of a soda one may purchase.
The middle land shrinks for two reasons. One is that lawmakers encroach upon it as they pass ever more statutes, and their bureaucratic minions write pages of regulations about how these laws should be enforced. This has been called the emergence of the bureaucratic nanny state. The nanny state restricts behaviors it deems harmful to the larger society. The nanny state removes the burden of personal choice and responsibility from the individual at the same time it destroys some of the middle land.
The lovers of the state welcome this. They think if something is unregulated it is automatically suspect, if not corrupt. This mindset is encouraged by the state and its mindless adherents.
The second way the amount of middle land declines is if members of a society voluntarily give up part of their middle land by calling for their liberties to be restricted in the name of social order. Sometimes the middle land can be disorderly, chaotic, rude and crude. The shrinking violets dislike this orderly chaos implore the government to impose their visions on how society should function. They care little if the habits they rail against effect them little if any. Order and surety are more important than freedom.
The middle land of self-regulation has been encroached upon enormously. In some places there are laws governing the cleanliness of one’s automobile, collecting rain water on private property, carrying a Bible in public places, banning the advertisement of legal products, and distributing free bottled water without a permit. These days everyone is offended, and the offended cry out for laws to save them from this or that insult to their delicate psyches.
Recently in China there has been talk about enacting rules of civilized behavior. These laws are aimed at micro-managing day to day human behavior and interactions. They will replace much of the little middle land that exists in Chinese society.
If the government doesn’t want people spitting, an anti-spitting law is enacted. If shoving on and of the metro bothers you, don’t worry. The government will make sure laws are passed to force orderly queuing. The ancient custom of public urination by babies is under attack, despite the fact that there is little if any evidence the habit causes harm.
If the most minute of human behaviors is governed by laws, it destroys the human ability to reason or make independent decisions. No longer does the question of it it right or is it wrong enter into a decision. Whether something is polite or not, need not be considered. Instead if it is legal or not is what matters. Bureaucratic fiat has replaced judgment.
Besides killing humanity and the human spirit, the bureaucratic state allows some to feel free to engage in any behavior that is not against the law. Judgment and manners are no longer necessary. If it’s not against the law it must be OK to do.
By removing judgment from daily life, a bit of humanity goes with it. Lord Moulton was correct. The size and the strength of the parts of society in the middle land do indicate its greatness, or lack thereof.