Laws are only as “good” as the compliance they command

There are always examples illustrating where the “law is an ass”. Recently there was the case of the Saudi Arabian cleric who has issued a fatwa against the building of a snowman since this would be an “image of man” and a blasphemy! Laws are nearly always about achieving a balance between the needs of individuals and those of the larger society, and which can often be in conflict. It is always the larger society which makes the law (never the individual) and it is always the larger society which assumes for itself the right to make laws and coerce the behaviour of the individuals making up the society. I got to wondering about how the “goodness” of a law could be measured.

The objective of creating a law is to get compliance. Man-made laws (and even all the laws of all the gods – inevitably interpreted by men) are fundamentally coercive towards the end of compliance. They try to shape human behaviour – and only human behaviour – by threats of consequences for non-compliance with the law (if found out). They are a tool of organised societies and usually only try to coerce the behaviour of members of that society (including temporary members or others within the power of that society). The purpose is usually the smooth operation or the (perceived) well-being of that society.  Laws have specified jurisdictions. They do not – usually – try to coerce the behaviour of entities not within the coercive power of the law-making body. There have been cases of misguided lawmakers and Kings trying to create laws to govern animals and birds, or to control the tides or to ban eclipses and volcano eruptions, but these examples of idiocy are relatively few. (But such idiocies are present even today as with those who try to make laws to control the climate).

There is a hierarchy to these laws with the laws of any society generally being subordinate to those of any larger society it is part of. Town laws are subordinate to county laws which are subordinate to country laws. (But it is noteworthy that no country gives precedence to the laws of a god over the laws of a country. Even some Islamic States which claim to give such precedence first merge the supposed laws of their god into the laws of the country. Saudi Arabia is a legal chaos unto itself where women drivers are treated as dissenters and tried in terrorism courts). The supposed “sanctity of the law” is merely a concept which presupposes the supreme goal as being the well being of the society making the law. The laws of a failed or discredited society are discredited and discarded along with that society. Courts of Law deal with compliance or non-compliance with the Law and Justice is served only incidentally.

But all man-made laws are formulated only because compliance with the law is not assured and the society wishes to have such compliance. Only the “laws of nature” command full compliance and are 100% effective. In fact, the laws of nature are only discerned by humans because they are always complied with – without any measures to ensure compliance. Coercion is always zero. Gravity always applies – but we still don’t know quite how it does. The laws of nature are fully complied with even if the law is not discerned or formulated. Man-made laws cannot negate or defy gravity or any of the laws of nature. Neither can the laws supposed to be of the gods. (Which begs the question as to why a law supposed to have been made by an all-powerful god cannot ensure full compliance without any coercion? Going by the ability to command compliance, all imagined gods are subject to natural law!)

It occurs to me that “compliance” is the “benefit” when assessing a law and the “cost” is the amount of coercion that has to be applied to get that compliance. Taking the laws of nature as my benchmark – 100% compliance with zero coercion – leads me to think that the “goodness” of a law can then be defined as the ratio of the compliance it achieves to the cost of the coercion it has to use to achieve that compliance.  A Compliance/Coercion Ratio is then effectively a benefit/cost ratio. The greater the ratio the greater the “goodness” of a law. Note that the cost to society of some non-compliance may indicate the need for a law in that area but is irrelevant for estimating the “goodness” of that law once made.

“Goodness” is clearly infinity for laws of nature where the compliance is full and the amount of coercion in the denominator is zero. At the other end of the scale, for “bad” laws, the C/C Ratio would go to zero if either the numerator was zero or where the amount of coercion was very high and approached infinity. Clearly if there was no compliance, the C/C ratio would be zero and the law would be a “bad law”. Equally if coercion is “unlimited” (mass executions for example), the “goodness” would be zero no matter what level of compliance was achieved.

Compliance and coercion are not impossible to measure. Compliance is simply the proportion of those complying among the total population subject to the law. The amount of coercion applied could be measured by estimating the cost of the penalty/punishment levied – or to be levied – and the number of times it would be applied. A law against murder – for example – would need to estimate the amount of coercion as the punishment level multiplied by the number of times the punishment was – or would be – applied. It would need some imagination to compare the total cost to society of – say – an execution to that of a life-term, but it would not be beyond the wit of man to estimate the “amount of coercion”. A successful law would show a clear increase of the C/C ratio over time. It would quantify and demonstrate how behaviour changed such that there was more compliance with less coercion.

Perhaps every new law that is proposed should be judged for its “goodness” by estimating its Compliance/Coercion Ratio. Laws are only as “good” as the compliance they command and as “bad” as the coercion they need to apply.


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