It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law. ― T.Moffat

What does this quote mean?

The quote “It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law” was said by T. Moffat and refers to how laws come into existence. It suggests that laws are created through authority and power rather than careful consideration, logic, fairness, or what is best for society.

Laws are enacted by governments and legislatures who hold power and authority over the citizens of their jurisdiction. However, those in power do not necessarily pass laws out of wisdom or with the intention of bettering society. Instead, rules are imposed through the authoritative power of those creating them. The quote highlights how laws stem from authority and command rather than rational thinking.

How laws are made

Most modern legal systems have a process for creating legislation that involves debate and consideration by elected representatives. However, several flaws still exist that allow authority to trump wisdom:

  • Lobbying and special interests – Powerful groups can lobby and pressure lawmakers to pass legislation that benefits them financially rather than citizens. This influences the lawmaking process.
  • Party politics – Elected lawmakers often vote along party lines without properly examining each bill’s merits. They put party loyalty above thoughtful consideration.
  • Urgency and shortcuts – To speed things along, lawmakers may pass bills without proper review and debate. Complex issues are simplified to get measures passed quickly.
  • Reelection concerns – Some politicians pass laws primarily to appeal to voters or special interests to help their reelection chances rather than act based on principles or long-term goals.
  • Misinformation and neglect – Lawmakers do not have perfect information and understanding on all issues. They base decisions on limited knowledge, which may neglect the unforeseen impacts of laws.

So, while laws go through a process, authority and power dynamics still allow rules to be imposed from above rather than emerge through consensual wisdom and collective rational judgment. The legal system prefers imposing commands above cultivating thoughtful agreement.

Examples throughout history

Many laws enacted throughout history better illustrate Moffat’s quote when looking back with hindsight. Here are a few examples:

  • Prohibition-era alcohol bans in the US – Outlawing alcohol in the 1920s was a poorly considered law that citizens widely disobeyed once enacted. It arose from moralistic impulses rather than pragmatic policymaking.
  • Racist Jim Crow segregation laws – Legalized discrimination against African Americans in the post-Civil War South stemmed from racial prejudices held by those in power rather than any rational or fair judgment.
  • Banning same-sex marriage – Only recently have same-sex marriage bans been overturned. For a long time, authority prohibited it despite growing support and acknowledgment of equal rights.
  • unjust war legislation – Wars sometimes occur based on misinformation or impulse rather than careful cost-benefit analysis. The Iraq War provides one example where authority overrode wisdom.

In all these cases, the laws were exercises of power and dominance rather than products of inclusive democratic discussion aimed at practical solutions. Authority imposed policies over citizens rather than cultivating common understanding and consensus.

Moving towards wiser lawmaking

While some degree of authority is necessary for governance, greater wisdom in lawmaking would involve:

  • Transparency to curb backroom dealing and special interests
  • Thorough review and debate periods for all significant legislation
  • Expert testimony and data-driven analysis of issues
  • Bipartisan problem-solving over party-line battles
  • Accountability for impacts of laws after enactment
  • Public participation in the process through technology
  • Constraints on money influence through public campaign financing

With continued democratic reforms, the hope is legal systems evolve to emphasize inclusive discussion, careful consideration of impacts, and agreement through reason giving—moving closer to the ideal of governance reflecting the aggregated wisdom of citizens rather than top-down authority alone. The ultimate goal is lawmaking that better earns the consent and cooperation of the governed.

The Role of Lobbying in Undermining Wisdom

Lobbying by special interest groups is one-way authority can override wisdom in lawmaking. Well-funded industries and organizations devote massive resources to influencing politicians and the political process. Lobbyists can provide expertise, donations, and misinformation that steer lawmakers toward decisions that benefit lobby groups rather than citizens. The lobbying process lacks transparency and rewards authority over carefully examining policy impacts. This imbalance of influence undermines the ability of the government to pass wise laws through inclusive democratic discussion.

How Party Politics Overrides Independent Thought

In many political systems, lawmakers belong to and owe allegiance to political parties first before their constituents. As a result, elected officials often vote along strict party lines regardless of a bill’s merits. This preserves party authority and cohesion at the expense of independent thought and non-partisan consideration of legislation. Lawmakers fear defying their party more than failing to scrutinize new laws thoughtfully. Strict party politics threaten rational democratic governance by enforcing obedience to party authorities over independent and empirically driven lawmaking.

The Weakening Role of Expert Consultation

Consulting experts is necessary for wise lawmaking with complex policy issues. However, government authorities do not always make full use of expert communities. Experts can be ignored or selectively cited to support preconceived notions. Additionally, misinformation campaigns try to undermine specialist consensus on issues. When authorities neglect expert input or research, making emotionally driven misguided laws rather than data-driven rational policies becomes easier. Strengthening the role of expertise would help counter the shortcomings of authority-based lawmaking.

Changing Social Values Versus Political Inertia

Societies and social values continuously evolve, but governing authorities often fail to keep pace. Outdated laws stemming from old social prejudices are sometimes kept on the books long after falling out of favor with citizens. This disparity grows when political systems are unresponsive to changing public opinion due to legislative gridlock or the controlling influence of entrenched political powers. Wise democratic governance requires legal systems to adapt laws to new understandings rather than cling to outdated notions imposed by past authorities.

Reelection Incentives Against Long-Term Thinking

Politicians and lawmakers naturally focus on getting reelected in shorter election cycles rather than taking a long view. As a result, there is an incentive to pass emotionally satisfactory laws that curry public favor rather than carefully craft prudent policies. Authorities may disregard potential long-term problems caused by hastily enacted laws if the changes prove popular in the short run. Overcoming reelection pressures would encourage wiser legislative conduct focused more on incremental progress than constant widespread approval.

The Centralization of Lawmaking Power

Historically, giving more concentrated authorities control over lawmaking has often undermined wisdom in governance. Centralized power is less responsive to local diversity, and decentralizing authority diffuses poor decision-making. Overly centralized systems risk enacting one-size-fits-all policies poorly suited to regional variation. They also threaten independent judgment in policymaking by enforcing obedience to commands from ruling political centers of power. Distribution and regional autonomy in legal systems may counter some weaknesses of authority-based centralized lawmaking.


In summary, Moffat’s quotation highlights how laws throughout history have often stemmed more from governments’ authoritative power and command rather than emerging through inclusive democratic deliberation and consensus. While legal systems have processes, reforms are still needed to curb undue influences and incentivize wiser policymaking through transparency, review, and public participation. Continued progress depends on moving the foundations of laws closer to wisdom and away from power alone.

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