Saturday, November 26, 2011

Good Laws Make Good People; Bad Laws Make Bad People

Kenneth Davidson provides a review of a book by Lynn Stout: Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People. The review appears in The American Interest.

Stout argues that people living in society tend to try to be good citizens and demonstrate respectable behavior under most circumstances.

"Backed by hundreds of studies by behavioral economists, as well as evolutionary theory, anthropological studies and neuroscience, she claims that people often really are motivated by conscience, generosity and even altruism."

The claim is made that a successful law will build on this tendency. If the law is deemed appropriate and fair, it will be obeyed. If one can assume that others are abiding by the law, the tendency will be to abide by it also.

"....A moral principle, fairness, comes into play for most people that trumps self-interest narrowly defined."

The problem is that these natural leanings toward decency can be easily undermined by social context and instructions by authority.

"Yet another set of behavioral studies that Stout describes adds to the insight that shared values and social context matter. One study, which has been replicated, concerns a common problem faced by day care centers. For various reasons, some parents tend to be late picking up their children and thereby inconvenience day care personnel, most of whom have after-work commitments. In the study, they worked with behavioral economists to impose a new rule that in effect fined parents who were late picking up their children on the grounds that it was unfair to expect the staff to stay late. To the surprise of some, the effect of the fine in this and succeeding studies was to increase the number of parents who were late in picking up their children. How to explain this?"

The explanation seems to be that the imposition of the monetary fine lessens the feeling of a commitment to accommodate the needs of the staff, and turns the situation into a financial issue that encourages people to focus on their self-interests. "Is the perturbation of my schedule needed to arrive on time worth more to me than the fine?" The analogy can be made to a law that is intended to discourage antisocial behavior with punishment, but only serves to disturb the normal impulses toward good citizenship.

"Laws that rely on punishment and deterrence, as most of ours still do, are necessary for a small category of people and certain types of actions, but they do not alone constitute a viable basis for regulating the vast range of human relationships. We can have a safer, more economically productive and more humane society if we jettison the antique view of human social nature that still informs our implicit assumptions about crime and punishment."

Laws and public policy should work together, not so much to punish misbehavior, but to encourage socially responsibility. The "broken windows" approach to decreasing crime in New York is an indicated approach that proved effective. If you create the impression that other citizens are behaving properly, individuals will be less likely to misbehave.

Good policies and bad policies can cause behavior to go spiraling off in good or bad directions.

"....behavior and how behavior is perceived form a recursive process, giving rise to self-fulfilling, or self-denying, prophecies. To the extent that we arrive at the conclusion that people are basically selfish and unreliable or that groups of people are not worthy of trust or respect, we undermine the possibility of civilized society. If, say, too many voices assert that taxes are government theft, then people are less likely to pay them. If we treat alien residents in the United States as if they are more likely to be criminals, the alien population is less likely to cooperate with law enforcement officials. And so on."

Stout believes that a number of false assumptions about human nature have influenced our policies in ways that have not been beneficial. Of particular interest is the targeting of the economists who indicate that humans are rational beings who will make decisions based on their self interest. This philosophy leads to the notion that a person’s self interest can be manipulated by applying incentives. The way to inhibit undesirable behavior is to issue punishments for such behavior.

"Stout rejects the proposition that law should be based on the assumption that we are in the main bad people who act solely on the basis of rational self-interest. She argues that this is a wildly incomplete description of human social life and blames it for creating generations of bad mental habits leading to misbegotten interactions of all kinds."

This interesting fact is presented.

"Beliefs about others’ behavior can also affect the expected fairness of their actions. For example, Stout notes that teachers of economics describe people as motivated primarily by self-interest, which may explain why ‘economics majors are famous for cooperating less in [behavioral studies] than non-economic students do’."

In other words, economists tend to be not only ill-informed—they are also ill-mannered and unpleasant to associate with.

Stouts presents a compelling argument that public policy can reinforce positive inclinations or diminish them. Her book may delve more into concrete examples, but this review is rather sparse in terms of applications. Clearly, an unwise law that is not supported by a majority of citizens, such as prohibition, generates contempt for the law and flagrant disobedience. In our current political situation there is a compulsion on the part of some to impose religious and social beliefs on all. Such maneuvers will not end well.

Taxes present the best example of a situation where the law, and implementation of the law, must be consistent with social expectations. If we do not believe taxes are fair, and if we do not believe that the majority of people are obeying the law, then the motivation to cheat will be obvious. Such a trend will put our society is in great danger and no amount of penalty will resolve the problem. Perhaps that is the difference between us and Greece.

Stout provides an insightful context within which policies and laws can be evaluated. One can only hope that her faith in human nature can be extended to include politicians and legislators.

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