Laws are only effective if people agree to follow them. Take for instance the ordinances that exist across the country regarding traffic laws. Staying to the right of the solid white and yellow lines, stopping at traffic lights, driving within posted speed limits, yielding right of way to pedestrians, and so on, are laws that most of us agree to follow most of the time. These laws are so deeply ingrained in our culture that they seem as if they are laws of nature, not things we learn so much as things we know. Speed limits in particular are some of the most ignored laws in the country, with roughly 41 million speeding tickets written each year. Ostensibly we enacted speed limit legislation to reduce traffic accidents and improve safety, though a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that speed limits cause more accidents than they prevent world-wide. I’ve had two speeding tickets in my lifetime and that may or may not be how many times I’ve actually exceeded the posted speed limit. If you imagine driving in conditions where the majority of people do not stay inside the lines, do not obey traffic lights, and never yield to pedestrians, it would be ridiculously dangerous to drive or walk and we would insist upon doing something to change that situation. Would revising laws or making some new ones solve the problem? Not likely, since the majority of people aren’t paying attention to the existing laws anyhow. So what good does speed limit legislation do?
One key thing it accomplishes is shifting the responsibility for maintaining a sensible speed from us to law enforcement agencies. This is a moral dilemma. Why are people ignoring speed limits over 41,000,000 times per year? Well, the reasons for speeding are as varied as the people who receive the tickets. But underneath all the justifications or mea culpas is this: they are speeding because they don’t agree with the speed limit and don’t see any harm in exceeding it, if only as an exception. Just this one time. Because of special circumstances. Plus, the penalty is only a fine. California tried to address this dilemma decades ago by making Traffic School mandatory for speeding violations more than 10 mph over the posted limit, and that made Traffic Schools a very lucrative business but it did not cut down on speeding. If you drive in California, especially Southern California, you learn quickly what is meant by defensive driving. Remind me to tell you about my ‘Miracle on I-5’ story sometime. But I digress.
This is what is meant by the phrase “you can’t legislate morality”. You can enact all the laws in the universe but you can’t make people follow them. You cannot pass a law telling people to be courteous because they just won’t follow it. Most people are courteous most of the time, but that’s not because we have a law telling us to be nice, it’s because we believe it is the right thing to do. We choose to follow laws. We realize that laws exist to ensure our mutual safety and, mostly, to provide an avenue of redress when someone else violates the moral code that governs the conduct of most reasonable people. In other words, laws are there to give us a means to deal with people whose conduct is harmful to others in significant ways. Laws are not meant to be a substitute for problem-solving or, as my young Millennial friends might say, adulting. We all need to grow up and learn to solve problems with our neighbors instead of taking them to court or calling the cops.
We have become increasingly dependent upon laws and courts to solve our problems, taking our neighbors to small claims court over their kid who broke our window instead of working out an acceptable restitution between us. Lodging a criminal complaint against the child instead of talking to the parents. Yes, the child may technically be guilty of vandalism, and yes your property was damaged, but do we need to introduce our children – anyone’s children – to the horrors of the criminal justice system at a young age or could we adults maybe suck it up and figure it out by, you know, acting like adults? Juvenile lockup will not rehabilitate the child, but you and I could accomplish that together if you, the parent, require her to help me install the new window, or to mow my grass for a summer as restitution for breaking it, or dozens of other creative solutions to help her learn from the mistake while also getting my window fixed. Instead, we have shifted the responsibility for the mischief of neighborhood kids to law enforcement and the courts. The machine that is the criminal justice system does not view us as people nor does it allow for many individual variances. It is a one-size-fits-all last resort, or should be. There is nothing rehabilitative about most facilities in the Corrections System despite the implications of its name. So if we want to rehabilitate someone, if we see value in them, we must stop calling the cops for every little problem and start talking to our neighbors. We owe it to our young people. We must model this mature, problem-solving behavior if we expect them to become respectable citizens who obey the law.
Which brings us full circle on this issue of the ineffectiveness of laws. The law can get your window restored but it can’t teach that kid a damned thing that’s useful. We have Constitutional protections against discrimination and yet many people still suffer inequities because of their race, national heritage, gender, religion, age, or because of disabilities. The laws do not protect us from people discriminating against us, they merely offer a system of redress when such things occur. Yes, they serve as somewhat of a deterrent to some people, but only to those who were inclined to do the right thing anyhow. In that way, laws can define the boundaries of moral or ethical behavior and clarify how law-abiding citizens should act. But those who seek to harm, take advantage of, or punish others for simply being who they are will take those actions regardless of laws. Sadly, the law may simply inform them about the methods they should use to avoid suffering penalties. But the law will not stop people from behaving badly. Haters gonna hate.
If we want to effect a change in people’s behaviors, we need to make it clear that we – their neighbors – will not tolerate certain behaviors. Whether the unacceptable behavior is from a neighborhood kid or a coworker or a cop or a president-elect, it falls upon each of us to say to each of them in appropriate ways “this is not acceptable – the law applies to you, too”. I’m not talking about vigilantism, I’m talking about dialogue, gestures, compassion. Waiting for others to take action on our behalf has gotten us into this mess. Taking personal responsibility for the condition of our community is what will encourage mutual respect and banish hateful behavior. It’s on us to set the example of what law-abiding looks like, not just call the cops and let them sort it out. We have to model this thing called adulthood. Clearly, waiting for law enforcement and politicians to do the right thing is getting us nowhere.
While we ponder this topic of the effectiveness of our laws, and consider how to brew up a fresh pot of solutions in our hate-weary nation, these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bring me comfort and encourage me to keep pressing forward, even on dark days like January 20th. Our President-elect doesn’t believe the law applies to him, and it seems surreal that someone who so blatantly disrespects our nation’s beliefs will now govern it. It is incumbent upon each of us to tell him that the law does apply to him and we do not condone his flagrant disregard for it, following Congressman John Lewis’ lead. Either we insist his behavior be regulated the same as ours, or we surrender our nation to a dictator without comment.