There are an increasingly number of intensifying problems in today’s world. Naturally, as a species conditioned to verbally respond to any changes in our natural environment, there is an even larger number of reactions to these problems. Some will be angered, some annoyed, some ambivalent. Yet as the world faces and re-faces the same problems for the seven billionth time in its long and chaotic history, there is one uniform reaction common to every individual of this society: “Why isn’t there a law against that!?!?!?!”
Be it racism, bullying, gun violence, rudeness, littering or Jersey Shore, these eight words are shouted out with great conviction, and utterly outraged indignation, as if someone will hear it and provide the implicitly expected ‘quick-legal-solution’. Our faith in the legal system is our magic wand. It is rooted in the assumption that there exists a positive correlation between a law passed and its desired consequences: because the law has the power to attach a severe penalty to the crime, it will necessarily cause it to stop, or at least decrease.
We believe in these deterring powers of law because we believe that people are rational beings who, when faced with deterrence, will abide at all costs, which, of course, is not true. But for a while this is what society believes because of the immediate emotional reactions towards such negative actions. A shooting in a public area will naturally cause a panic that will force pressure on the law to ban guns. Drugs found in school will obviously cause worry and intensify the need for law reformations. These are automatic impulses, but they are problematic because they put pressure for law on the surface issues and not the real root issues that need to be addressed to achieve long-term resolutions.
This irrational need for a ‘quick-legal-fix’ has a second explanation. The world of law has a basis in a reductionist view of the world: Newtonian physics and the invention of the microscope and DNA imaging illustrated how the whole can be understood if its components are studied carefully. Similarly, legal policy-makers and their huge public advisory body (i.e. us) assume that if the part is changed (the law) then the whole will be fixed (society).
Problem is this linear system doesn’t exist. Like the scientific advancements that proved that genes are not individual parts of a whole, but rather complex, interconnected regulatory networks, the law too is a complex system that does not have that one fixed expected outcome. Instead it can backfire dramatically, and result in what academics call the “law of unintended consequences.”
So yes, public pressure after great violence, or increasing cases of harmful things, demands law to take action. It demands it because it believes in cause and effect. As a result it forces law to believe in cause and effect. As a result these laws do not solve any of the social problems, but merely make them more messy. Public says ban guns, the law does it. Tomorrow there will be a surge in the black market. Things start happening under the surface of law. The unintended consequences result because of the public moral condemnation, the same condemnation that doesn’t let the legal body address poverty or education – the respective abundance and lack of which can be attributed as the root causes of any and all social problems.
Until we understand that, we face the unintended consequences of our unwavering faith in the law at our own peril.