How Bad Laws Undermine Bad Governments

One problem with bad – or even just badly-passed – laws is that they encourage disrespect for the law in general. Look at Prohibition: a ridiculous law that was widely-ignored, and caused normal people to look the other way on principle as criminals violated it. What did this do? Well, first, it made criminals of people who saw themselves as normal citizens, causing them to fear the government as an enemy instead of valuing it as a servant. Secondly, it entrenched organized criminals so deeply in our society that their influence didn’t really wane until the rising socioeconomic status of the communities it operated in allowed the people who might have gotten involved in it to find better job opportunities that didn’t involve the possibility of getting machine-gunned.

Illegal immigration is a fine example of this point. If millions of people can feel free to simply ignore the law – if they are, in fact, encouraged to do so – because it is useful to people who have money and power that they should (more cheap labor for Republican-donating business interests, more potential votes for Democratic politicians), then why should anybody else feel an obligation to obey the law based solely on principle? Why, too, when Wall Street crashes the economy with massive, bare-faced fraud, and not only does no one go to jail for it, but politicians of both parties bail them out with taxpayer money for their trouble? It begins to appear to people as if laws are something only the middle-class need worry about – that there are people who are above the law and below the law. Obeying laws you dislike or disagree with simply out of respect for the legitimacy of the government that created them starts to look like a game for suckers.

Once that respect and sense of legitimacy starts slipping away, it’s very hard to restore. It’s one of those psychological barriers that, once you pass it, you can’t really go back again: like the sense of white colonizers as all-powerful and godlike that kept the dark-skinned and colonized from rising up against them – once that barrier was breached and the realization that the colonizers were only human really sunk in, colonialism was doomed. Shattered illusions are powerful and dangerous things.

Unless a government plans to come out as an absolute, goose-stepping, Gulag-building tyranny, it really needs to be careful not to pass a lot of laws that, pass laws in such a way that, or selectively enforce laws in such a way that undermine its legitimacy and respect for its laws in the eyes of its people. The thing is, you can’t arrest everybody. Governments rely on the fact that most people will abide by the law, even laws they disagree with personally. And people do so for only two reasons – out of acceptance of the legitimacy of a government and attendant respect for the laws it passes, or out of fear of its enforcement apparatus.

So what happens when the former becomes irretrievably eroded?

Well, then two possible things – chaos, or tyranny. Once the majority of people have the illusion that the government possesses legitimacy shattered for them, and once they lose respect for the law, then the only thing left in the government’s bag of tricks, if they want people to continue to not simply ignore laws they don’t like, is fear.

Neither option – either chaos or tyranny – sounds too pleasant to me, but here we are.

By no means am I saying, by the way, that we have yet arrived at that juncture. But it is clear that we have a trend on our hands – one that has been continued through Presidents of both parties, and that I see no evidence will be reversed anytime soon.

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