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Some Realities About Laws and Contraband

This could also be titled “Human Nature Strikes Again”.

Every time a physical thing is outlawed, two things happen.

The first thing that happens is a new class of criminals is created, many of whom were not criminals before. Those who were not criminals before will lose respect for government.

The second thing that happens is that government inadvertently creates a business opportunity for entrepreneurs to supply the thing that was outlawed. Often, the outlawed thing becomes more popular than before it was outlawed. The result is that criminals end up making a lot of money.

If people want something, they will find a way to get it. If people want something, someone will jump in and provide it.

This reality drove the Soviets nuts — especially those who truly believed in communism. On the streets of Moscow, you could buy all the stuff that was outlawed — rock and roll music albums, genuine Levi blue jeans, makeup from Europe, western books and magazines, you name it. How was this possible in the most tightly controlled police state in the world? And remember that Moscow is in the middle of a large country, not a seaport or border city where smuggling is easy. Yet, there it was on the streets of Moscow.

Some of these things are hard concepts for many United Statesians to accept. Most believe in the idea of “the rule of law” and that people behave because of the threat of legal consequences. Most Americans believe, and I used to believe, that if laws and police disappeared overnight, there would be total chaos and mayhem. That’s not true. I’ve witnessed this exact thing happen in a much “rougher” country than the USA: Guatemala. The entire national police force was disbanded and for several months there were no police at all. We’re all gonna die, right? Well, exactly nothing happened. In fact, the crime rate dropped slightly.

How is this possible? The reason is that people obey laws because they want to, not because of the threat of punishment. People do what they want, regardless of laws. The majority of people in a society are nice people, who want to peacefully get on with their lives. Civil order continues with or without police. Leading a society to believe the myth that their safety, from moment to moment, depends on police is advantageous to government and the police. But, it’s a myth.

Conversely, if people don’t want to obey a law, they won’t. This means that government should not make poorly designed laws or too many laws. The Chinese wrote about this a thousand years ago. Governments should not create laws that people will not obey. If you do, it gradually weakens the force of all laws, including good ones. Each time a person disobeys or circumvents a law, their overall respect for government and all law diminishes.

If government wishes to retain the support of the people, it must also adapt to changing behaviors. One example of this is marijuana laws. For the past 40 years, just about everyone I know smokes pot. (Unfortunately, I’m strongly allergic to it.) This means that every one of those people knows they’re breaking the law constantly. They’re constantly aware that the government makes stupid laws that nobody obeys. They’re constantly aware that, under the law, they’re criminals — unprosecuted felons, and the government would love to throw them in prison. This has strong negative effects. It has the subconscious effect of weakening respect for all laws and government in general. It also turns police into adversaries.

Advice from the ancient Chinese to all governments:

  • Don’t make stupid laws.
  • Don’t make lots of laws or complicated laws so that people are confused.
  • If times change or you discover a stupid law, fix it immediately lest you lose the respect of the people.


  1. Douglas C Alder

    well said

  2. David Collier-Brown

    Never give an order that you know won’t be obeyed (:-))

    • Phil

      That’s a good one, with the same sentiment. I like it.

  3. Christian R. Conrad

    A very illustrative example: Swedish-style wet snuff, “snus”, outlawed in Finland when the two joined the EU in 1995. (The reason: an EU-wide ban on this kind of tobacco products was being introduced at the time, because it was feared they would constitute a “gateway drug” to cigarette smoking.) Possibly more popular in Finland now than then; a very thriving black market.

    Sweden, of course, negotiated an exception (because the politicians, both Swedish and European, knew damn well that otherwise there would be no membership — about half of Swedish males, being snus users, would have voted it down in rhe referendum)… And AFAICR, it was all phrased in terms of “exception for countries where use has been traditional”, so all the Finns would have had to do would have been to say, “and of course that goes for us, too”. But for some reason — “Finlandisation” having settled into their genes, only now hastily redirected towards Brussels in stead of Moscow, AFAICS — they didn’t. Kowtowing fuckwits.

    • Phil

      That’s a great example. It’s human nature to be intrigued by what is prohibited, increasing their focus on the prohibited thing.

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