That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, Scene 2
December 3, 2001
By RONALD N. NEFF
A few months ago, my friend Paul was running late to catch a flight; his ticket advised him that he had to report to the boarding counter 15 minutes before departure time. When he got there, he had two minutes to spare. (This was in the days of air travel when the United State had no office of "homeland security"; when early arrival was still measured in minutes, not hours; and when every man did what was right in his own eyes.)
The ticket agent, however, informed Paul that his seat had been sold and that he had had to arrive 20 minutes before the departure time to protect his reservation.
Paul was incensed. He insisted that his ticket said 15 minutes, and he showed the agent where it said that. She replied that his was an old ticket and that the policy had been changed since the ticket had been issued.
While she was talking, a sign on the counter caught Paul's eye: it read that passengers must obtain their boarding passes 15 minutes before the departure time. He picked it up and shook it at the agent. "Is this an old sign?" he demanded.
The agent insisted that the policy was 20 minutes and that there was nothing she could do about his flight. Paul is capable of achieving true apoplexy in the face of casual injustice, and he was on the verge of just that when he was offered a first-class ticket on the next flight to his destination.
"Can you believe that?" his voice squeaked as he was telling me this story. "She just stood there and lied to me. I showed her the ticket, and I showed her her own sign, and she just lied to me. Their own signs said that the policy was 15 minutes. She just stood there and lied."
Every now and then I blurt something that on second thought turns out to carry some insight, and this was such an occasion: "How do you know it wasn't the ticket and the sign that were lying?"
The more I thought about it, the more I thought about all those activist and policy organizations that act as though liberty will be advanced by an appeal to existing laws the Constitution, the Posse Comitatus Act, and so on. They file lawsuits to reverse acts of injustice; sometimes they are successful, but often they are not. They assume that winning elections can benefit the cause of liberty, and they then spend much time, money, talent, and effort participating in the electoral process. That, after all, is how their rule book says you gain power and effect change. They become masters of the rule book listing the procedures for getting on ballots. But none of their rule books lists the kinds of changes that can be effected. That is the rule book they should be consulting if only it existed.
The activists' tactics exhibit many errors. Implicitly submitting to the judgment of a criminal organization (the state) is one; applying tactics to a lost position that are appropriate to an unresolved position is another. But my friend Paul's tale alerted me to an error I have been overlooking: assuming that the public and written rules for action and behavior are the real rules, assuming that the sign on the counter is telling the truth.
The rules that govern our society are seldom the ones that are written. Appealing to public officials to adhere to those rules, then, is asking them to conduct themselves in accordance with standards that they learned long ago lack any governing authority. One conservative writer has written that there are the laws that are on the books, and then there are the laws that aren't on any books. It can sometimes be useful to know the former, he says, but it's absolutely vital to know the latter. And they seldom agree with the signs you may see on a counter.
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