Friday, August 5, 2011

Draconian Laws (in ancient Athens)

Law-enforcement in Athens in the 7th Century BC was a shambles. Government was undemocratic and irresponsible. The city-state was home to a mixed populace of citizens, immigrants with Permanent Residence, and a caste of slaves and indentured migrant workers. Its rulers were drawn from an upper caste of hereditary citizens who used their wealth to cheat and exploit their subjects. Laws were uncertain, and their enforcement even more so. The ruling elite exempted its members from prosecution on an ad-hoc basis and for most offences, and invented ad-hoc laws to keep the lesser folk in their assigned places.

The situation was out of hand. In desperation, the rulers commissioned one of their number to give the community a written constitution and body of laws. The Commissioner (called Draco: it meant “dragon”, and was probably a nickname) began his task by identifying all the written and unwritten laws recognised and enforced by the rulers, and who those laws did and didn’t apply to. Since most of the laws favoured the ruling caste (slave-owners, businessmen and citizens) and disfavoured the Permanent Residents and slaves, etc, the laws Draco presented to the ruling Council were extremely harsh for 80-90% of the population – “Draconian”, in fact. The new body of laws, embodied in a draft new constitution, so shocked his peers that they ordered a reform of the whole legal system, law by law and line by line.

The Cayman of today is equally a community with laws written and unwritten, and a rule of law that is selective at best and wholly absent in some places. Our most influential citizens are exempted (at their option) from as many laws as their money can buy. Regarding corruption: here are two questions and sets of options to think about.

1) How much corruption do we have in Cayman? a) not much; b) too much; c) about average for the Caribbean.
2) How many people are sent to prison for corruption each year? a) none; b) probably none; c) none that we know of. (Note: this is not a scientific survey.)

The marl road has always (since I’ve lived here) pointed to the Police, Immigration and Planning bureaucracies as where most of the corruption occurs. That may be a terrible slander, but in the interest of transparency I must report what the marl road tells me. What are our law-enforcement agencies doing about it all? Well, we have an Anti-Corruption Commission, whose name seems to belie its real purpose, which is to do nothing. They say they have discovered nothing worth reporting. Hmmm. Either the crooks are devilishly cunning or the Commission is blowing smoke.

The Commission on Standards of Public Life is another do-nothing body fulfilling its secret purpose. The Human Rights Commission, another. Corruption usually involves human-rights abuses, and turning a blind eye to evident corruption is itself an abuse. Draco’s one-man Commission of 3,700 years ago, operating in the absence of a working constitution, did what all our over-manned and under-performing Commissions apparently can’t do. You or I could do more in a week than all the Commissions have done in eighteen months.

We honest folk are urged to respect the law, but how can we when so many crooks are- informally- licensed to break it. There’s not one person who is on the hook for corruption, at the present moment. Not one policeman on trial for perjury, not one Immigration Officer on trial for illegally hiring out his slaves (indentured migrant workers), not one Civil Servant on trial for accepting a bribe.

Instead, our law-enforcers harass and imprison kids for a spliff or two outside nightclubs. As a community, we judge ganja to be more of a danger to our values than corruption. What the hell is wrong with us? How did our priorities get so screwed up?