Why Some Laws Are Effective While Others Aren’t
Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a seven-part series on effective criminal laws.
By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
Drinking alcohol is a social activity that many Americans today take for granted. They often forget that there was a time in our nation’s history when such indulgences were outlawed.
In 1919, the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act, popularly known simply as “Prohibition.” The law took effect in 1920 to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the United States.
But just 13 years later, in 1933, Congress repealed Prohibition. Why? The short answer is that lawmakers had failed to recognize that most Americans would not accept or abide by the criminalization of alcohol.
Why are Laws Needed?
To understand the dynamics of criminalization, one must first articulate the reason why laws exist. Laws are enacted to deter unwanted behavior in society.
Why are there speed limit laws? Notwithstanding the frustrations of many commuters, traffic laws and speed restrictions are not necessarily in place to slow everyone down. Rather, it’s because when people speed, they significantly increase their chances of getting in an accident and potentially killing themselves and/or others. Therefore, speed limit laws are in place to deter people from causing injuries.
[Related: Do We Need Driving While Drowsy Laws?]
How is it decided what conduct is considered unwanted and what laws need to be enacted to deter such activity? This question is complex because it involves many moving parts within the moral compass of a society.
As an example, take a moment and reflect on what, in your view, distinguishes right from wrong. Now think about where those values come from. You might be tempted to argue that your sense of morality is a product of natural intuition; in other words, you might think you were born with a moral compass. To a certain extent, you’d be right.
For example, those of us born with healthy, normally developing minds tend to resist the notion of hurting or killing someone simply because causing intentional harm is innately wrong. However, people born with unfortunate brain abnormalities might not share the same sentiments, due to biological and psychological differences. Incidentally, this leads to lots of interesting ethical questions about the culpability of murderers and the like for their actions.
The Development of a Moral Compass
Biology aside, we’ve conducted enough social science research to know that much of our moral reasoning is informed by our surrounding influences and life experiences. The answers to the following questions can significantly contribute to how a person develops their moral compass:
- When were you born?
- In what country do you live?
- Where did you attend school?
- Who were your friends, family, and neighbors?
- Are you religious?
- Did you go to college?
- What is your profession?
- How much money do you earn?
All of these variables—and an almost infinite list of others—factor into how we reason about situations of moral judgment, particularly when “right” and “wrong” decisions are not nearly as obvious as deciding whether or not to purposely injure someone.
These moral deliberations can be difficult for individuals to navigate, so people naturally look for a moral consensus in society to guide them. That’s why it’s so important for laws to have a socially acceptable and articulable moral underpinning. The majority of people must generally accept that underpinning if the law is to be respected by society as a whole.
Going back to the example of speed limits, the moral underpinning is simple and clear: Most people in society agree that injuries and deaths from traffic accidents are bad. In 2017, roughly 40,000 people died from roadway collisions in the U.S. Insofar as a moral person would want to prevent those deaths, it is generally accepted that these laws make good sense.
Laws Need to Be Considered Reasonable by the Public to be Effective
However, there is another equally important factor in the dynamics governing whether a law will have the effect desired by its creators; that is whether a law’s methods are the most reasonable way to accomplish the moral objective. Laws can stand on rock-solid moral footing, but still fail to meet with public approval if they are perceived as sloppily written and administered to meet their stated goals.
In our speed limit example, we know that accidents happen much more frequently when people drive at unsafe speeds. So the law mandates lower speeds to decrease the likelihood of accidents, and to reduce their severity when they do occur.
But if we wanted to avoid accidents altogether, we could simply ban driving. There’s no denying that outlawing cars would certainly put a stop to roadway injuries and fatalities.
But we would all agree that this would be an extreme and excessive measure that goes beyond the scope of reasonableness. For that reason, it’s likely that most of society would defy such a law if the government ever tried to put it into effect.
The moral logic undergirding most laws is fairly straightforward. When the methods are also reasonable, the effects on criminalization tend to be direct and predictable: A new law is implemented, the public recognizes the need and the rationale behind the new law, and complies with it accordingly.
But what happens when the moral foundation of a law and/or the methods it employs are not accepted by the people? The effects of criminalization can deviate drastically from lawmakers’ expectations.
In the next part of this series, I will more closely examine the Prohibition era, and explore why the ban on alcohol ended the way it did.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.