Hard cases make bad laws

Hard cases make bad laws

“Hard cases make bad laws” was a mantra I often heard when I first got involved with politics in the 1950s. Obvious as the message is, I puzzled about it then and have done ever since. The law of the jungle does not allow for hard cases. In fact the disadvantaged are usually driven out, even killed, to maintain the viability of a society or pack. I thought that humans were intended to have a kinder, more supportive approach to the disadvantaged.

All the laws passed since those days, wherever in the world, have had some ‘level-playing-field’ intention to mitigate situations of people whose misfortunes cause them to suffer beyond the normal. Fairness is not handed out at birth. It should surely be reasonably provided by the group to which you belong. It is significant that the apparently happiest societies are those in Scandinavia where community support is a political given.

The arbitrary and rough-shod approach to migrants and travellers now being imposed by the new White House administration seems to be going in the opposite direction. Of course, no developed country can afford to admit all the people who would like to live there. Societies and cultures have been developed over generations by people familiar with and generally sympathetic to the geography, climate, history and beliefs of the inhabitants. They have a right to preserve and grow those cultures.

So what is their duty towards the less advantaged? There are benefits to be reaped by the infusion of new blood and fresh ideas. But does their obligation reach beyond simply what is to their immediate advantage? Are people who want to live in your country to be assessed only on what they can immediately bring to the table? Is migration to be so transactional that nothing short of instant benefit shall be allowed to determine an aspiring migrant’s wishes?

Life has always been somewhat transactional. Today’s transactions are more accurately weighed and shorter-term than in the past. But today’s global objective is presumably still to build a better civilisation. And how will we define that civilisation? I think Louis de Bernieres has it right when he says “The real index of civilisation is when people are kinder than they need to be”. That predicates handling hard cases as generously as we can.

If our global purpose isn’t to build a better civilisation can we please be told what it is?