Liberty and Bureaucracy
The lesson for adult Sunday School was on Jethro's advice, contrasting Calvin's rather Statist interpretation with most other commentators. But an astute member of the class had a further insight worthy of a blog post.
Moses sat alone to judge 2 million people. He couldn't possibly arbitrate every dispute. The lines were long. People waited days, weeks, for their case to be heard. Jethro offers the obvious Statist solution - create a bureaucracy of lower and higher courts so that everyone's dispute can be handled. Moses followed Jethro's advice, and the implementation was still in effect when Jesus came. But did Moses do the right thing? What if he had not elaborated on God's instruction?
The Lone Judge - an alternate history
Moses sat alone to judge 2 million people. He couldn't possibly arbitrate every dispute. The lines were long. People waited days, weeks, for their case to be heard. So, in most cases they didn't. This was a strong motivation to work out their own disputes. There were harsh punishments for resorting to violence (as we'll see later in Exodus), so negotiation was the way to avoid the lines.
When the parties were at loggerheads, and negotiation was at a standstill, there was still an alternative to the interminable wait to see Moses. Both parties could agree to a neutral arbitrator acceptable to them both. They could even pay him for his time.
The lines got shorter, but were still long. More importantly, people were learning to get along, and work out their own disputes. People with the wisdom to settle disputes were in demand as arbitrators. And Moses was still available (eventually) when one or both parties refused to follow the arbitrators decision.
If Moses had followed Jethro's advice, there would be no incentive to learn to get along. There would be no freedom to choose an arbitrator - the lower courts were appointed by the central government.