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.