On “The Limitations of the Law”

It was on the occasion of the 45th meeting of the American Bar Association, that the Vice President of the United States rose to speak on August 10, 1922. As he prepared to explain here what law cannot do, none could have foreseen that almost a year to the day later he would be President. Known for writing all his own speeches, this one was no less the product of years of careful thought affirmed by his own twenty-four continuous years in public service, up to that time. He saw that law had limitations. When the national government is expected to encompass all decision-making, it will prove itself incapable of the task, however well-intentioned, well-supplied or well-led. Such is the result of ignoring the limits of law. There is no “magic” road to perfection by “nationalizing” morals through legislation. Besides, people cannot defer powers to Washington that they themselves do not possess, Coolidge would observe. That is the safeguard of federalism. Federalism limits responsibilities to those best able to handle them: local affairs belong to local citizens, states making their own decisions in statewide matters, and national government, defined and limited, making decisions through representatives of the people, while each respects their proper sphere of authority.

On a more basic level, the limits of law reside not in a denial of society’s growth and advancement but acknowledges the universal truth that law cannot do everything. It certainly cannot do all we would like it to do. As Coolidge would observe, “Real reform does not begin with a law, it ends with a law.” For the received standards of society — the “laws” they embrace — come not by government deciding such and such is so, but originates from the people themselves. In this way, Coolidge foresees the failure of every measure to make people conform to “laws” handed down to them rather than as the acknowledgment in law of long-practiced and accepted norms of sovereign citizens. As Coolidge would remind his listeners, the limits of what law can properly do should not be a cause to despair for the future. On the contrary, Coolidge, full of optimism, pointed ahead to the inexhaustible resourcefulness of engaged citizens. “It is time to supplement the appeal to law, which is limited, with an appeal to the spirit of the people, which is unlimited.” Solutions lie not in the halls of government offices but in the ingenuity, character and competent hands of informed citizens.

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