How Breaking the Law has become more Acceptable in Contemporary America

Laws too gentle are seldom obeyed; too severe, seldom executed.
– Benjamin Franklin, statesman, author, and inventor (1706-1790)

Most of us who are Baby Boomers or older grew up in a time when laws were to be obeyed. We knew what the laws were and it was our social (and family) responsibility to uphold them.

We didn’t know much about those who freely and frequently broke laws because we didn’t come in contact with them much. Recent studies in the US have shown that 90 percent of people today break laws frequently and without twinges of conscience. Most violations are minor, but they make laws in general seem like a social evil.

What changed? Why do we have so little respect for laws today compared to a couple of generations ago?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but I will try to simplify the complex answers and give you the opportunmity to think them through yourself.

Prior to the 1960s children were drilled formally and taught incidentally the range and scope of laws they were expected to obey, by parents, teachers and leaders of their respective church groups. In the interim, regular attendance at religious services dropped off dramatically, school curricula have been loaded to overflowing with “basic learning” information and skills and two parents working in most families have left little time for parental role modelling and direct teaching of the laws of their community and their nation.

As more children grew to be young adults who lacked knowledge about laws that affected them, more also became adults who were not clear about the moral obligations each person has to the social structure of their family and their community. In other words, they broke laws because they weren’t certain the laws were all that important anyway or because they didn’t know what the laws were.

Governments, reacting with shock to the increase in law breaking, passed more laws and bylaws. These became filled with details of specific examples of lawbreaking so that judges, magistrates and justices of the peace were left with fewer doubts as to what behaviours were illegal and what penalties should apply to each.

The plethora of laws to which each citizen must subscribe today is so complex that almost nobody knows what they all are. In their rush to create more laws and put more power into the hands of more police officers to catch more lawbreakers, the law makers neglected to provide clear and pervasive methods by which each child or adolescent would be able to learn the many laws he should abide by.

A teenager today may be able to do physics his parents don’t understand, speak languages his parents have seldom heard and know a huge amount of information his parents were never exposed to, but he may not know the laws of his community and his country because most of them never made it onto the curriculum of his school.

Moreover, he may read the pages of any newspaper to find many examples of where people have broken laws. He will know many schoolmates and acquaintances in his community who break laws freely without being caught. Even television programs deal mostly with the most violent laws, seldom with those that affect most people on a daily basis.

A young person may even see a police officer speeding down a city street or highway on their way to a coffee break or to signout for their shift. He knows that the same police officer may catch and charge him the following day for speeding on the same street.

There are many laws that are never enforced by the police because they will not be supported in court or because the courts have many more important cases to attend to than minor cases that will “waste” precious time.

Like anything else in life, if we want people to obey laws, we need to teach those laws to children before they get old enough to find out that breaking them might just work. They need to be taught the gritty details about what is wrong, about the consequences that result when people break laws. They need to know the harm that lawbreaking does and that the harm is wrong.

Not teaching about drug laws because we fear that kids will find out about drugs and become addicts, for example, has no evidence to support it. Kids who know the truth about drugs before they are exposed to drugs on the street (often by the age of six years) tend to avoid the drugs.

By the same token, kids who know the details about sex and the responsibilities and consequences of pregnancies have a much lower incidence of teenage pregnancies and often do not have close relationships with members of the opposite sex until later than their more ignorant peers. Where do laws and sex come together? Ask a 16 year old father or mother who has life-altering responsibilities for a child they didn’t want but will have to look after and be fully responsible for during the next 20+ years.

Making laws is one thing. Teaching them to everyone who must obey them is quite another.