Why Do People Obey The Law?

Myths abound about crime rates and law-breaking.  In fact, some kinds of crime are going down and others are probably going up.  A more interesting question is why so many people obey the law most of the time.  In this episode we look at the main theories about legal obedience. 

There is a legitimacy theory, that if people think their society is fair they are less likely to break its law.  

Economists, however, argue that it is a cost-benefit equation.  If the cost of breaking the law exceeds the benefit, people rationally will break it.  

Criminologists argue it is about levels of self-control and impetuousness in the face of opportunity.

Maybe there is some merit in all these approaches, but perhaps the legitimacy theory has the most explanatory power.

Listen to the Two Steves agonise about all this, whilst having a dig at politicians, only to happily conclude that we might still be asking the wrong questions.

How many times have you heard claims about rising crime rates or calls for harsher punishment?

Often this is before an election, with politicians scoring points off each other.

Stephen Bottomley

In this episode we delve into the murky and controversial area of breaking the law.

In countries like Australia, the category of crime most talked about – burglary, assault and robbery – is probably falling per head of population. 

In the year 2000, Australia had the highest rate of that type of crime in a survey of 25 countries, but by 2018 the rate had fallen by 60%.

The problem is that it’s convenient for opposition politicians to blame governments for some kinds of crime, and it’s inconvenient for them to talk about crimes that probably are rising, such as sexual violence and white-collar crime.

Perhaps, anyway, we’re asking the wrong question. More interesting is why so many people obey the law and why they do it so often.

In one guise this is an old question.  Philosophers since Ancient Greece have agonised about the nature of political obligation to the state.

With the rise of the social sciences in the 20th century, however, the question has been asked and answered in very different ways.

Three theories in particular have dominated.

The first, favoured by psychologists and sociologists, argues that if a social system is seen as legitimate, there is more obedience to its laws. 

Numerous experiments have been carried out, including in a leading study by Professor Tom Tyler, published as “Why People Obey The Law”

However, economists, such as Nobel Prize-Winner Professor Gary Becker, see law-breaking in terms of benefits and costs.

If the costs of breaking the law are higher than the benefits, then there is deterrence. All crime is ultimately an economic decision, they say, and all criminals are rational.

Thirdly, and different again, are criminologists who adhere to what they call a general theory of crime.

People with low levels of self-control are more likely to be delinquent when the opportunity presents itself, and, contrary to the economists’ view, some people may not weigh up the consequences for themselves or others.

There are other theories around: for example, that obeying the law is often simpler than not. 

If you see a sign for a one-way street, you are not likely to drive down it the other way, even if you think that road traffic laws are the work of the Devil.

In a short episode we can’t do justice to the complexity of all these theories. 

And not surprisingly some scholars have assumed that there is merit in all of them.  They have tried to integrate them and work out their relative influence in obedience rates.

Behind all this are a large number of research studies, some of actual crime patterns and some of volunteers presented with dilemmas and choices.  What do you think is the weight of opinion?

As far as I can tell, the legitimacy thesis – that people obey laws when they regard their whole context as legitimate and fair – explains levels of obedience relatively better than other explanations.

This is particularly if you assume that a highly unequal society will be seen as less legitimate by many of its citizens. 

A survey by polling organisation Gallup of 148,000  people in 142 countries asked some standard questions about whether people trusted police, felt safe walking home alone, had had property stolen or had been assaulted in the last year. 

There was a strong connection between heightened perceptions of crime and income inequality in those countries.

On the other hand, as technology makes certain crimes harder to commit and easier to detect, there is less benefit to the criminal compared with the cost of actually committing the crime and getting away with it. 

Conversely, if the penalties for corporate crime are not high enough, companies may just factor them into the costs of production, and carry on as before.

So, the economists’ approach must have something going for it.

And we also know that crime rates drop in older age groups. 

When I was training as a solicitor in England, doing criminal defence work, my boss used to say that the best cure for crime was growing up. 

By the time these youngsters were 30, they would be less impulsive, too busy and have too many commitments to go off the rails. 

But no one obeys every law all of the time.   Should we tweak the question and ask when do people obey the law rather than why they do it? 

In other words, what are the conditions which maximise law-following amongst the largest number of people?

Yes, and that seems to be a shift in some of the recent research.

And don’t you need to distinguish between some kinds of laws and others? 

For example, is a law designed to change behaviour more likely to be successful than one designed to change attitudes?

And are so-called victimless crimes somehow different from ones with identifiable victims?

Yes, these too are a focus of recent work.

And is there a difference between low-level crime and serious stuff? Are procedural or administrative laws, such as the requirement to file your annual tax return, more or less likely to be obeyed than criminal laws?

Yes, yes, I surrender. There are numerous variables to be factored in somehow!

Well, Stevo, this was all very interesting, even though you tell us at the end that we still don’t have the question right, but what do we take away from it all? 

That there are no simple answers that explain everything. 

I’m still not sure that even the legitimacy theory really caters for the person who simply believes it is the right thing to do to obey the law, whether it’s because of their upbringing, religious belief or personality type. 

However, if we create a good society, with low levels of inequality, and with sensibly designed laws that are clear and easily obeyed, you have the best foundation.

And if you also build in ease of detection then you have largely covered off legitimacy and economic explanations.

But what about the self-control theory? 

Which politicians do you have in mind?

Don Weatherburn and Sara Rahman, The Vanishing Criminal: Causes of Decline in Australia’s Crime Rate, Melbourne University Press, 2021

Tom Tyler, Why People Obey The Law, Princeton University Press, 2006

Berenike Waubert de Puiseau, Andreas Glockner and Emanuel Towfigh, “Integrating theories of law obedience: How utility-theoretic factors, legitimacy and lack of self-control influence decisions to commit low-level crimes”, Cambridge University Press, 2023

The Economist, The stark relationship between income inequality and crime (economist.com)

Edmund Flanigan, “Do We Have Reasons to Obey the Law?”, Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2019

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