Orson Welles on Contracts and the Rule of Law



From Peter Biskind’s hilarious and irreverent My Lunches with Orson, the edited transcripts of Orson Welles’s conversations with director Henry Jaglom in the mid-1980s:

HJ: In the old days, all those big [movie] deals were made on a handshake. With no contract. And they were all honored.

OW: In common with all Protestant and Jewish cultures, America was developed on the idea that your word is your bond. Otherwise, the frontier could never have been opened, ’cause it was lawless. A man’s word had to mean something. My theory is that everything went to hell with Prohibition, because it was a law nobody could obey. So the whole concept of the rule of law was corrupted at that moment. Then came Vietnam, and marijuana, which clearly shouldn’t be illegal, but is. If you go to jail for ten years in Texas when you light up a joint, who are you? You’re a lawbreaker. It’s just like Prohibition was. When people accept breaking the law as normal, something happens to the whole society. You see?

Of course, the US today is a society in which every citizen is a lawbreaker, virtually all the time — and it’s often impossible to know which law you’ve broken until ex post facto, when a government official decides. What can the rule of law possibly mean in such a system?

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