Do laws actually make a difference?

Christopher asked:

Do laws really make a difference? Don’t we basically behave the same way regardless? I know laws can make a difference by punishing people who threaten the welfare of society, but do they deter those actions? If not, then could a society ‘work’ if it had no laws?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

This is not a question for philosophy. It is a question for psychology to answer. The proven answer (proven by experiment) is that laws do make a difference. Most people will obey the law as long as other conditions exist. One of these conditions is that they must have a reasonable expectation that the law will be enforced.

I know this from my own experience. In the 1980s when there were few parking wardens in central London it became obvious that some drivers would park anywhere. They parked on the pavements, they parked on yellow lines because they had little expectation that they would be penalised for it.

The situation got so bad in certain areas that vigilante groups of residents started gluing notices over the windscreens of cars that were blocking their pavements.

People are complex and different. There are people who will obey the law just because it is the law (unless they think the law is unjust). There are people who will only obey the law if they have an expectation of being penalised if they break the law. Then there are people who will not obey the law (sociopaths or psychopaths). Then there are the protesters who refuse to obey laws that they think are unjust.


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