What Keeps People in Line?

A recent correspondent wrote:

I have come to believe that what makes people law-abiding is the sense that they will be caught and punished, and to a lesser extent, having something to lose through criminal prosecution.

Well, maybe.  But if that’s really true, we’re screwed.

One of the things that set the United States apart from the rest of the world, for much of its history, was the presumption that people would generally do the right thing without having to write a law.  We presume that criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty.  And somehow we got through most of our history with a smaller and less onerous government, with far fewer laws, than we have now.  Not did we ‘get through it,’ the United States was the most productive and prosperous country the world had ever seen.

John Adams wrote that, ‘Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’  It would certainly not work for a people whose only respect for the law is rooted in the fear of its consequences.

It’s true that we’ve become less constrained by religion and morality over the years, and we’ve had to face the consequences.  Businesses used to be run to do whatever it was had set themselves up to do: build cars, refine oil, provide transportation, bake bread.  Now businesses, especially large ones, are run to maximize profits, and the actual function of the business is secondary.  Meanwhile, in our personal lives, it used to be taken as a given that most of us would get married first, and then have children.  Now, only fools get married, or so the modern theory goes.

But what is it that leads people to respect the law and follow the rules?

The short, obvious answer is that it’s something that one learns from one’s upbringing.  You learn from your parents and your teachers and even your friends that it’s worthwhile to respect the law, even when it’s more difficult in the short term… or you don’t.

But it’s broader than that.  Respect for the law goes with other behaviors like being true to one’s word, facing the truth even though it may be unpleasant, and following through on one’s promises: in other words, a sense of personal honor.

But personal honor gets in the way of having fun!  We can’t have that!

Then we’ll have to face the consequences.  And the worst of that hasn’t even begun.

3 thoughts on “What Keeps People in Line?”

  1. The idea of keeping people in line is an interesting choice of words. It is difficult to force people to obey without expending a certain amount of effort. The necessary, but not sufficient, condition for honor is accountability. For honorable behavior to be seen as something that is desirable, there has to be a reward, perhaps in the form of social status as being one who you can do business with on a handshake, or a penalty for non-honorable behavior, such as it becoming publicly known that you can’t be trusted that would limit your ability to work in the field of your choice.

    We’ve outsourced that vetting process to the Better Business Bureau, Yellow Pages, Angie’s List, or in my case, the contractors who the Office of Personnel Management hires to do background investigations. Can I be trusted? I’d like to think so, and so far the adjudicators agree with me.

    As we get farther and farther away from each other, there is a certain incentive to take advantage of others to the extent that you can, particularly if you never expect to do business with that person again. The drawback is that once the person knows that they have been burned, they might want revenge.

    One can argue that being honorable is its own reward, and in certain ways it is. If I have good habits, my life is a lot simpler. Still, I have to realize that it is a lot easier to be honorable when I have a reasonable amount of money on hand or a steady job. It’s harder to be honorable when I am broke or out of work. It may well be more important that I be honorable when things are not going as well for me.

    Fear of consequences can be a softer thing than the mere fear of fines and jail time. However, in the absence of a strong sense of “that’s just not done”, the law is the next recourse. It’s interesting that Wal-Mart is the victim of at least three times as many reported thefts as Target or any of the stores in the nearby mall. Part of it might be the layout of the store. Could it be that people have a feeling that it is more acceptable to steal from Wal-Mart?

  2. I wasn’t totally comfortable with the title of this post, but it best expressed what I wanted to discuss in the space of a few words. The secret of our success as a nation (alas, in another time) was that, for the most part, people kept themselves in line, while at the same time being productive and innovative.

  3. You might like “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray. He argues that our decline as a nation is linked to declines in industriousness, the marriage rate and honesty. Though his focus is white America, he argues that adding the rest of the population does not change the results substantially.

    We live what we are taught, and often the lessons are unintentional. I might be wrong about this on a broader level, but anecdotally, there seems to be more spoken resentment of welfare and other social services programs that are income-tested as I talk to people who earn up to 3-4 times the maximum for welfare. Saying that “they’d rather stay on welfare” seems unfair, but “staying on welfare” can actually be the better economic decision when the jobs available don’t offer access to health care. Supposedly, Wal-Mart has a “welfare outreach” department to tell people how to access welfare benefits.

    What we see around us sets our norms. Dropping out of high school never made sense to me, unless one earned a GED prior to dropping out and was doing it because they needed to work to help their family. The longer that one is out of school, the less likely they are to return and earn the diploma or degree.

    The factor that “keeps us in line” is what we think our prospects are. It’s hard to see things from another person’s perspective. Near the end of his life, my father was a clerk at county court. A woman asked him where a certain courtroom was. The woman was well-dressed, and he thought that she was an expert witness or something like that. It turned out that she was being tried on many counts of prostitution, so his error might well be attributed to having been a middle manager much of his career. We can all probably find people of our past who have done considerably worse than us, like one of my childhood friends, who became a prostitute.

    Not all rewards are equally rewarding, nor are all punishmnents equally punishing. It makes me wonder how many people take reality shows as object lessons rather than just entertainment.

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