You Get the Small Laws
The Society of G.K. Chesterton
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You Get the Small Laws

QUESTION: In the Tuesday, August 6, 1997 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle I read the following letter to the editor in regard to a recent demonstration calling itself Critical Mass which became a disturbance of the peace by a few thousand bicyclists in downtown San Francisco. It seems they wanted bike lanes and perhaps desired the immediate demise of the automobile. Many participants became violent toward cars and peace officers arrest were made. The whole affair has come to be called Critical Mess.

Critical Mass participants would do well to heed the words of G.K. Chesterton: “When you break the big laws, you do not get freedom, you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.”

What is the source of this quote? Just what does Chesterton mean? I admit to being a bit baffled. This letter is an excellent example of how to quote Chesterton on issues of the day as we members of ACS are called to do. Cheers!

ANSWER: The passage (one word, “liberty,” was misquoted) reads:

When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.

It may be found quoted on page 119 of A.L. Maycock’s 1963 collection of excerpts from Chesterton’s uncollected writings, The Man Who Was Orthodox. Maycock gives his source as Chesterton’s Daily News article for July 29, 1905. He quotes only those two brief sentences.

We wish we had the original article to give you the context, but as is true of so much of Chesterton’s work, it remains to be collected and republished. The ACS is dedicated to furthering this work. The nearest copy we know of is in the Library of Congress.

What Chesterton might be driving at is possibly suggested by the fact that in some jurisdictions one is more likely to be prosecuted for littering than for pornography. Although some of us tend to think it means that when we ignore the “big laws” (which some of us would equate with The Ten Commandments), when we ignore them both by disobeying them and by not enforcing them, we are left with having to make many small laws for many different situations, will also not be obeyed or enforced, and which will lead to even more laws.