Monday, May 19, 2008

The Freeman Essays--III Dickens and the Two Faces of the Law

I wrote this essay and submitted it to The Freeman shortly after the death of Howard Hughes, when it looked very much that like the estate in litigation in Dickens' novel was used up in legal fees, that of Howard Hughes would also be considerably reduced thereby because of the various conflicting wills that were surfacing.

Charles Dickens' "Bleak House" and the Two Faces of the Law

Long before Bastiat wrote his famous treatise on The Law, it was known that the law could be used for good and evil purposes. It was Bastiat's genius to show that the law becomes evil, even when its intentions are for good, if it attempts to go beyond the basic functions of protecting men from theft and fraud and use of force against their persons.

It is doubtful that Charles Dickens, the great English novelist, ever read Bastiat's treatise, or that he even thought very deeply about theory of the law. But he wrote a great deal about the law. While Bastiat struggled with the law in a parliamentary setting, Dickens observed its workings by mingling with the common people. He spent innumerable hours wandering through the back streets and alleys, sitting in the pubs and music halls, talking with the street vendors and urchins of London and other major cities of England. In recording those observations in a fictional setting, Dickens demonstrates the basic truths of Bastiat's writings in the practical everyday experiences of ordinary people.

One of Dickens' books in which the workings of the law figures most prominently is Bleak House; indeed, its sub-title is,"On the Slow Workings of the Law". Like all of Dickens great works, this work features a host of plots and sub-plots with a cast of dozens of characters. Their lives and the various sub-plots are related by the fact that they are all affected some way by a court case,"Jarndyce vs Jarndyce", which has been dragging its way through the English courts for years.

One of the great themes of the book is the deterioration of body, mind, and soul that occurs in those who hope to enrich themselves, without compensatory effort, on the workings of the law. Early in the book, the nominal hero of the book--or at least, the character introduced with all the characteristics of the hero--young, handsome, strong, vivacious, enthusiastic, and, of course, in love--finds that if the case of "Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce" is decided in a certain way, that he stands to become a major beneficiary in the huge estate being litigated. The hope that a favorable decision of the law may make him forever financially secure is a siren song that our young hero cannot resist. The case becomes an obsession that vitiates his every faculty.
Near the end of the book, the case reaches a conclusion that should have a very familiar ring to modern Americans. The lawyers, clerks, witnesses, legal authorities, litigants, and other interested parties come pouring out of the courthouse when it is discovered that the entire assets of this vast estate have been used up in lawyer fees and other legal costs.

My personal favorite character in this book is the embodiment of the law--the policeman, Inspector Bucket. Inspector Bucket is often proclaimed as the first of a long line of distinguished English literary detectives, that was later to include Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey, and many others. Unlike these more famous detectives, Inspector Bucket is more true to life, in that, he shows us in his work both faces of the law.

The face or side of the law that we admire and generally think of as "the law" is, of course, the prevention and punishment of crime; i. e. assaults by violence or fraud upon other people's persons or property. Inspector Bucket is at his best in this novel as he fulfills this function. His main task is to discover who murdered a Mr. Tulkinghorn and bring him to justice. In this capacity we see Inspector Bucket indeed as the worthy forerunner of Sherlock Holmes. In gathering clues, and checking out suspects, he is as clever and indefatigable as his famous successor. Also in this capacity he is thoroughly likable and admirable. He plays with children, encourages the downtrodden, helps old ladies, but never once losses sight of his main objective--justice.
But in one capacity in which Dickens portrays the otherwise good man, Inspector Bucket is neither likeable nor admirable--other than the fact that he could (or at least, would) say of himself, "I was merely doing my duty."

To portray this other face of the law and of its embodiment, Inspector Bucket, Dickens created what was probably the most pathetic of his child sufferers. Although, not nearly so famous as Oliver Twist, Little Nell, or Tiny Tim Crachet, the boy he created for Bleak House, named simply "Jo", is, in many ways, more admirable than those other, more famous, characters. Dickens makes it clear that even in his name--two letters with no descriptive adjective--we see the terrible poverty and bleakness of the child's prospects. He is an orphan who is both mentally and physically retarded. He is assisted in the business of living by associates barely more capable than himself. He manages to keep himself clothed and fed because, in spite of all his handicaps, he has learned a trade. He is a crossing-sweep.

Apparently, the streets in Dickens' day were very dirty. Besides paper and debris, there was the even more unpleasant, everywhere-present, horse manure. Jo had been taught by his associates to clean a path through this garbage for people--especially well-dressed people--as they approached his street corner. As they crossed, they would frequently--partially, no doubt, out of pity for his condition, but partially, out of real gratitude for the service rendered--leave him a tip.
Dickens tells us, however, that the presence of Jo and his associates was an embarrassment to the local politicians. He was a constant reminder that they were not living up to their responsibility to keep the streets clean. So they sent Inspector Bucket to gently, but firmly, move Jo and the others to a less conspicuous part of the city.

I suspect that many would say that what Jo needed was a government handout. It is clear that in Dickens' mind what Jo needed from the government was protection, but nothing else. It is clear that Dickens' admired the freedom and self-sufficiency Jo's cross-sweepings gave him, but it is obvious that someone like Jo cannot easily and quickly retrain for a new way of making a living.

I suspect that Dickens, in his wanderings through England's large towns, observed many men, women, and children, who, like Jo, had been forced, through government edicts of some kind, from constructive work. Of course, only careful observation or thoughtful deduction can detect lost opportunity. For example, only someone actually seeing Jo before and after Inspector Bucket had moved him, would actually know that he had been excluded from the cross-sweep way of earning a living. Someone observing him in his new situation, begging or stealing, or both, would probably assume that that had been his way of life all his days.

As I see people in our own cities begging, and read of the growing numbers of people living by crime, I often wonder how many of these people are, like Jo, driven from something they have done, or potentially could do, because America's Inspector Bucketts--mostly good men who sincerely want to see justice done--are forced more and more to put on the ugly face of the law and undermine, or even destroy opportunities for those who need them most.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

good post, I think this is really the untold tragedy of government. Reading these I'm getting a long list of books I need to read :)