Any parent of a toddler knows that in any given situation, the question “Why?” is first and foremost, and sometimes annoying.
When it comes to why we have laws, the answer seems obvious, “Because.” Enough said. However, taking a deeper dive into the question of the purpose of laws in this country may prove fruitful, even for the initiated.
The purpose of having laws
Laws are, generally speaking, the rules that a community agrees to have and live by. The rules that we agree to live by are the sticky stuff that binds us to one another and to the community as a whole.
Laws are, for the most part, for protection. Laws either protect us from one another or from ourselves. The purpose of laws within our society is to prevent abuses by one party of another party.
- Therefore, we have rules and laws about commercial food preparation and sales.
- Therefore, there is speed limit, required seatbelt use and prohibitions related to drinking and driving.
- Therefore, certain professions have licensing requirements.
- Therefore, not all drugs are legal and available.
Laws also protect each person’s liberties and freedoms. This includes the right to speak our opinions and the right not to be discriminated against because of who we are.
A division of branches
Because “times change” laws also need to change. Our legislative branch works to update laws. Our judicial branch is then tasked with interpreting these new rules and applying them fairly. Sounds cut and dried. Where it gets messy is deciding which of the rules or laws are just and which are unjust, as our idea of justice can also evolve.
Where the questions lie
What we have difficulty deciding is whether a rule or law is in the best interest of, if not everyone, then most people. This debate can bump up against how much protection from ourselves or our neighbors should the law entail?
Some questions that have been asked in good faith are:
- Should restaurants be able to sell 40-ounce sodas when they are shown to be unhealthy?
- Which words are offensive and considered indecent or obscene?
- When is a person old enough to vote, serve in the armed forces or marry?
Some behaviors are obviously injurious to others, but some personal proclivities, fashion sense and word choices fall into a gray area. And times change. We cannot imagine prohibition in the country during the 1700s (Well, at least we cannot imagine Benjamin Franklin imagining this). Lawmakers of that era could probably not conceive of the internet and all of our available social media.
Rules encourage stability and harmony
What any behavioral scientist can tell you is that anarchy is unstable. More curious perhaps is that rules do not come from the top down. Rules arise, as per Warwick Business School professor Nick Chater, “unbidden, from the needs of mutually agreeable social and economic interactions.” Laws and rules are requisite to our success as a species. Rules, it would seem, are a good thing.
Rules, says Chater, are “hardwired into our DNA as humans.” Even three-year-olds understand basic rules and comprehend when these rules are broken. But we need not pursue too much of a good thing. There is always a need to temper rules with reason, lest we become fanatics.
Think of restrictions so stringent as to allow no growth. So, in the final analysis, what is important is not only to understand and mostly obey the rules, but to understand the purpose the rule serves. To do this we must regress to toddler status and ask, “Yeah, but why?”