Laws can be ineffective if they don’t reflect social norms, Stanford researcher says


Stanford economist Matthew O. Jackson says laws that ignore social norms can backfire, whether it’s taxes in 2014 or deadly duels in France in 1626.


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Economist Matthew Jackson said the laws against dueling were ineffective because they went against deep-rooted social norms, which also discouraged others from intervening to stop the bloodshed.

Social norms, those unwritten rules of acceptable behavior, can change over time, such as Americans’ attitudes toward same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana.

But sometimes standards conflict with formal laws, and the result is counterproductive for everyone involved, say economists Matthew O. Jackson of Stanford and Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. History shows how different standards and laws can be, they noted.

Dueling, for example, was banned in France in 1626, but the practice continued long after. In fact, even though the government has tried to vigorously enforce the ban, duels have taken place at high rates – estimates suggest that more than 10,000 duels resulting in more than 4,000 deaths have taken place over the past 30 years. last years of the reign of King Louis XIV, which ended in 1715.

Jackson, William D. Eberle economics professor, says the laws against dueling were ineffective because they went against a deeply rooted standard, which also discouraged others from intervening to stop the bloodshed.

While laws that conflict with standards are likely not to be enforced, laws that influence behavior can change standards over time, he said. The progressive ban on smoking in public places in the United States is one example – diners now expect a smoke-free experience.

Tax evasion is another example: 30 percent of taxes were evaded in Greece in 2011, compared to just 7 percent in the UK. Tax evasion can be seen as normal in Greece, while it is not in the UK.

Whistleblowing counts

Standards also play a role in business affairs. Consider a business that coordinates with other businesses as part of a supply chain to bring products to market. If the government levies a value added tax that these businesses have to pay along the way, it would be a mismatch in standards for a business to pay the tax while competing with a dishonest business that illegally evades it.

As a result, companies that break the law more often engage in illegal activity when associated with other violators – and they will do so at high rates, Jackson and Acemoglu wrote in a recent research paper.

But whistleblowing can help. “Private whistleblowing can be essential to law enforcement. This implies that a society in which laws conflict with social norms will be unable to take advantage of private enforcement and will have less effective laws,” he said. writes the researchers.

As with duels, laws that conflict with existing norms tend to backfire, Jackson said. “The brutal tightening of laws causes significant anarchy.”

How does a company encourage more whistleblowing? “It’s very difficult to de-stigmatize whistleblowing because it often means reporting a community that someone is a member of,” Jackson said.

“Encouraging whistleblowing may therefore involve shifting the perceived allegiance of one person from the narrow community in which some people might break the laws detrimentally, to the larger community which is harmed by the actions,” he said. he declares.

The “broken window theory” called into question

A law cannot be understood in isolation from the many other laws that affect the same population, Jackson said.

“For example, tough immigration laws can turn many businesses that might hire immigrants into ‘outlaws’, which in turn affects their attitude towards complying with other laws or regulations. for example on worker safety, “he said.

As such, the research offers a different perspective from the “broken windows theory” of law enforcement that was introduced in the 1980s. This view claimed that the high incidence of serious crime in law enforcement downtowns was the result of permissive attitudes towards smaller crimes like graffiti, vandalism and subway fraud. As a result, New York City adopted a stricter policing strategy over the following decades.

But, Jackson said, “Poorly designed – overly strict – laws for one type of behavior – small-scale drug-related crime in downtown areas – can render laws against other types of behavior completely ineffective. ” The problem is that these overly strict laws make too many people “criminals”, thus discouraging citizens from becoming whistleblowers willing to call the police.

A more effective strategy would be to “decriminalize certain behaviors that have small externalities or costs to society,” he said.

Changing the standards

Jackson said the norms are often so ingrained that people don’t even notice how much they shape behavior: “They make our behaviors seem natural. “

Standards are self-reinforcing, as it’s much easier to live in a society where people’s behaviors are predictable and where people understand what is expected of them, he said.

The downside is that such compliance can make it difficult to change even very bad standards, Jackson said.

He suggests two possible ways to successfully change the norms: dramatic and highly visible efforts to change behaviors led by leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, or gradual changes in laws over long periods of time, like smoking regulations. in America.

Matthew O. Jackson, Economics: (650) 723-3544, [email protected]

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford Press Service: (650) 725-0224, [email protected]


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