The Importance of Being Reasonable

Washington Times 8.07.01
Balint Vazsonyi

Do you know the feeling when, as if someone had flicked a switch, a thousand-watt light bulb seems to come on inside your head? That was my experience the other day when I realized that two words, "reasonable" and "unreasonable" account for America's uniqueness as much as any other attribute.

Contrary to prevailing (classic Marxist-Leninist) thinking that economic conditions form the basis and everything else is "superstructure," the truth is the other way around. Our spectacular economic success is the result of a unique legal-moral foundation upon which a successful political system could be built.

The differences between Roman-based, codified continental law and English common law are well known. Beyond the role of precedents, the significant difference is that, under our law, verdicts are delivered by lay jurors and not by professional jurists. No one can be found guilty if just one of twelve fellow citizens sees grounds for "reasonable doubt."

The Constitution prohibits, among other things, "unreasonable searches and seizures."

You could travel Planet Earth from East to West, from North to South, and not find a single set of law books - outside the English-speaking world - in which these two magic words would appear. No need to go as far as Libya or Outer Mongolia. Do you think a government of France would be bound by having to be reasonable? Or that a German citizen would expect of an official to consider whether he was acting unreasonably?

Here is a true story from Soviet-occupied Budapest. A star of opera had a chronically ill brother whom he visited every Friday from 2 to 6. He always parked his car in the same spot. One Friday, he came back to his car at 6 and found a fine glued onto his windshield. Baffled, he looked for a policeman. One happened to be near-by. "This is a mistake," the singer exclaimed. "No mistake," said the patrolman. "You were parked in a no-parking zone." "But I have been parking here for years," protested the star. "Do you see this sign?" asked the keeper of the law: "Parking Not Permitted."

The sign was unmistakable. "Officer," said our hero, "I swear by everything sacred, that sign was not here at 2 o'clock." "Right you are. It was placed here at 4 p.m. That will be 600 Florins."

Our singer refused the fine and got on the phone to see who would know a police officer of proven operatic taste. Once found, the colonel in question could not stop talking about all the wonderful performances for which he felt indebted to our singer. He shook his head in disbelief. "Let me check out your story," he said, "and come to see me next week."

The following week, the colonel was grinning. "I looked into it, and it happened exactly as you said. They put up the sign while you were sitting at the bedside of your sick brother." He got up and stretched out a hand. "You are one hundred per cent right. Pay only 300!"

Relieved, the singer paid up. No participant in this story had expectations, let alone the obligation, to be reasonable.

The extraordinary step of incorporating such words in the legal foundations of a society requires the truly monumental assumption that all participants - government and governed - can and will know the difference between reasonable and unreasonable and, what is more, will apply sound judgment to matters at hand based on those criteria.

Calling the assumption monumental is almost an understatement, so unlikely is it that a society of diverse human beings will accept such a standard, and can function in accordance with it.

For my first concert tour of Mexico, I showed up with a visa, work permit, and every immunization under the sun. Yet, I was made to sit and wait for about seven hours in the empty airport of Mexico City, until the official himself wanted to go home and let me through. "You silly man, he was just waiting for his $20," my manager admonished me, herself exhausted from waiting outside.

And so we come to the point. Two current, heated debates ought to be affected by these considerations. One has to do with immigration, of course. Newcomers arrive from lands in which "reasonable" is neither a part of legal language, nor a concept about which a citizen is expected to apply judgement. If we wish immigrants to benefit fully from the opportunity, if we wish to preserve that which has made our society more successful than any other, we will facilitate speedy comprehension of the idea. So long as newcomers are encouraged to stay with their original language, they haven't got a chance. Unless you speak English, you cannot begin to understand what we are talking about.

The other issue has to do with alliances, international courts and United Nations initiatives. We have to realize that, for the time being, the legal thinking of most other societies is not compatible with our own. We have to limit our collaboration to an extent that is reasonable.

And it follows that subordinating any aspect of our laws to international jurisdictions is nothing short of unreasonable.