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Response or Comment

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It is natural to suppose law is like the centurion and can do as it will: "I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it." But a thousand years ago, King Canute tried to disillusion his courtiers about his efficacy by commanding the waves to stop beating. And fifty years ago, Harry Truman predicted of Dwight Eisenhower, "He'll sit here, and he'll say, 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike-it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating." It is natural to suppose law can do as it will because law has imposing powers. It can spend. It can fine. It can imprison. It can kill. So armed, surely it can command obedience. Sometimes it can. But surprisingly often, laws disappoint. They rarely fail completely. But, with dismaying frequency, laws betray the expectations of their promulgators and their advocates.


Reprinted with the permission of the Hastings Center Report and Wiley-Blackwell.