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Can We Have Law Without Order?

May 27th, 2021 by dk

Can we have law and order, but without always emphasizing the “law” part? I’m not thinking about mobs disrupting peaceful protests or reckless speeders weaving through traffic. Those problems will always benefit from a badge and a siren.

No, I’m thinking about much more common everyday disruptions. Neighbors having loud parties late into the evening, contractors not showing up on time for appointments, not knowing your pet’s limits in public spaces, abusing the item limit in the grocery express lane. Simple things that keep society flowing smoothly.

To put the same question another way, can we have law if we don’t first have order? Police officers increasingly blame their abusive behavior on being distracted by a gathering crowd. They cannot watch all around them and focus on their immediate task both.

Law without order is the recipe for a totalitarian state. If those with power cannot rely on an orderly society, then every action must be controlled by that power. It must exert total control over others or risk losing all control to chaos.

A friend has a close relative with an alcohol problem. The entire family is concerned. They feel powerless to confront the family abuse, much less stop it. Substance abuse is worrying but helplessness makes it worse. Nobody wants anyone to feel uncomfortable, making them unwitting allies to the inebriant.

Everybody wants to be the “good cop,” leaving nobody to be the “bad cop.” Things too often worsen from there, until violence or abuse requires the presence of an actual cop to play the bad cop.

Here’s where it will get uncomfortable for my liberal friends. It begins with an admission that the other side might be right. Conservatives have long warned us that society cannot function as well if basic family units are allowed to deteriorate. (Yes, I know the policies they promote don’t always help families. Don’t be distracted by the hobgoblin of absolute consistency.)

Families used to be built around a specific division of labor. “Just wait until your father gets home,” was a vivid reminder. A bad cop was nearby. Single parents have fewer options. Can we raise children without fear? We’re trying, but will it work? That internalized voice prompting us to return our grocery cart to its proper place has a tinge of fear.

I ask these questions now because our lives are about to get much more complicated, and very quickly. For the past year, life has been scheduled and controlled like never before. Our options during the pandemic have been severely limited. Meetings and calls have been scripted for efficiency. We effectively eliminated happenstance.

How much have our improvisational skills atrophied during the pandemic? We’re about to find out! When we bump into somebody on the sidewalk (Remember how that used to happen?) and we make promises to each other, will we remember to follow up? It was easier when a keyboard and a pad of sticky notes were within reach.

Everyday order matters. If we slowly learn not to trust one another, external controls will take over. That trend is not easily reversed.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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