Paul Revere (not the original one, obviously) asks:
Objectivism states that, among the purposes of government, it acts as an objective arbiter between men by enforcing contracts and laws. Individuals as such are free to make any contract between them, the integrity of which is ensured by the courts. I’m a little foggier on laws.
Here’s an example: for whatever reason, your city has zoned a specific section of road with a low speed limit compared to those before and after it. Is it moral to disobey the speed limit if you choose? It would seem trivial, but you’d be breaking the law regardless.
My thinking is: laws are instituted by some objective process, and by living in this city with other men you’ve agreed to abide by them. Of course, some laws are unjust (e.g. speed limits apply to public roads, thus being based on another unjust law) but since laws are objectively decided, an individual man cannot morally, or legally, spurn those he disagrees with. Clear enough, right?
Now, what if the law in question would be dangerous to obey? (Assume for this example that there is no alternative route and you’re forced in some way to make this choice, by previous ignorance or whatnot.) Say this section of low-speed road comes right after a high-speed one, around a blind corner for kicks. Following it would surely, to your reasoning, result in a rear-ending. Is it moral to obey the law then? If you’ve misjudged and it really isn’t as dangerous as imagined, does that change anything?
And if it would be moral to disregard the law in those circumstances, based on your own judgement, why does the degree of danger matter? (From no ill effects, to losing your job for being late, to being rear-ended, to dying in an accident.) Where is the line at which it becomes an “emergency situation”, if at all?
Finally, does the logic here change with isolated and harmless lawbreaking, such as drinking booze during the 1920′s Prohibition? What about harmless, but mutually agreed lawbreaking, like performing banned sex acts (e.g. sodomy in Texas)?”
First, a warning: It’s my understanding that it’s a crime to advocate breaking the law. So please keep that in mind as you post in the comments.
Now onto the substance of the question:
The Objectivist view is not that “laws are instituted by some objective process, and by living in this city with other men you’ve agreed to abide by them.” Laws in this country are instituted by pull-peddling majority rule, with scant respect for individual rights, even those explicitly enshrined in the Constitution. The resulting laws are often grossly non-objective — in the sense that you cannot know in advance whether you are breaking them or not. (The worst example is antitrust law, although I’d say that tax and regulatory law is too bizarrely complicated to be knowingly obeyed.) Moreover, a person does not consent to the laws of a given government simply by choosing to live within its territory — particularly not when significantly better alternatives are nowhere to be found. He never agreed to abide by the laws; he may have even resolved to do the opposite in some cases.
Moreover, the Objectivist ethics would never endorse the command “obey the law” as a binding normative principle, as the question suggests. Barring metaphysical emergencies, we are obliged to respect the rights of others. That respect for the independent judgment of others is a matter of self-interest: it is a means of advancing our lives. (For a detailed discussion of what counts as a metaphysical emergency, see Tara Smith’s new book Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics.)
In a fully free society, respecting the rights of others means obeying the law, precisely because those laws are just protections of rights. However, when laws violate rights, they can imperil the fundamental values of life, e.g. health, wealth, happiness. In that case, a person cannot be morally obliged to obey them. Of course, it may be prudent for him to obey them nonetheless, given the likelihood of detection and punishment. Yet it would be incoherent say that a person must sacrifice his highest value, i.e. his own life, for the sake of the ill-conceived and unjust products of majority rule.
However, that doesn’t morally justify disobeying every unjust law. Not every wrong law threatens your basic values. Moreover, in a basically free society, the rule of law is an important principle to respect and uphold, particularly when free to agitate for the repeal of those laws. (Tara Smith spoke persuasively on the importance of rule of law in her lecture How “Activist” Should Judges Be?.) Unfortunately, campaign finance laws dramatically limit the freedom to agitate for the repeal of bad laws in this country today.
So where is the line between justifiable and unjustifiable law-breaking properly drawn? I don’t have any more of an answer to that question than found in Leonard Peikoff’s course “The DIM Hypothesis.” (It’s available for free to registered users of AynRand.org.) In lecture 8, he discusses the question of the obligation to obey unjust laws twice: first during the lecture itself (about 14 minutes into it) then during the Q&A (about 10 minutes from the end). Undoubtedly, more work remains to be done on this topic: Dr. Peikoff’s remarks are only an outline of an answer. They’re a good beginning though.