Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Benefit of Juries


You have probably noticed that I have been reading Democracy in America as of late.  I came across a section (see it here) where Tocqueville is making observations on the jury system.  He remarks that it is especially important (even more than the judicial function of deciding criminal cases) as a political institution when trials involve suits of one citizen against another.

If you wanted to receive damages of some kind, or restrain someone from some activity that you claimed was harming you, it had to be done by convincing a group of your peers.  Tocqueville sees it as a great educational institution to keep citizens in touch with their society.

It occurred to me there is another great benefit implicit in all this – something that we have lost in recent history.  I say this because much, very much, of what once would have been handled by juries has been plucked out of their hands and delivered to the myriad regulations agencies.  When Tocqueville was writing, if you were to claim that your neighbor was polluting in some way that harmed you, you would bring the matter to a jury.

That must have tended to keep common sense and that complex interplay of factors that make up life in society in the mix of such decisions.  Does the smokestack in town really affect you in some damaging way?  Convince a jury and you can obtain relief.  But they will usually be practically-minded people who will probably not have any grand agenda in the matter.

Think of how such things proceed today for the most part.  Bureaucrats and their technicians are assigned the task of ‘cleaning up the air’ for example.  They have no concern for the real problems of ordinary people.  Their ‘business’ increases as they increase regulation.  The problems they supposedly address can never be ‘solved’ because to so admit would impair their fiefdoms.

Tocqueville could not foresee all of this, of course, but perhaps he was even more right than he knew.

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