What is the benefit in making something illegal?
Show notes and links:
Actually, Prohibition Was a Success (The New York Times)
14 Illegal Things You’re Doing on the Internet (Mashable)
Has making something illegal ever made it stop? (Quora)
Full episode text
The law, in many ways, is shared morality. As we’ve talked about in previous episodes, there is a certain element of shared morality in that law. In religious societies, it’s a more clear line. In mostly non-religiously based societies, the law stands in as that shared moral code.
Which brings up that question of why make something illegal is important? One answer is simple. When something is made illegal, it increases the social and economic “cost” of whatever that thing is. By increasing the cost, the idea is that demand decreases. The enforcement of a law further increases the social and economic cost, which tends to decrease demand. It also tends to increase the risk, which further decreases demand – though it also increases reward.
You can see this impact in the actual impacts of alcohol prohibition. Quoting from the New York Times:
“Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000… to 4.7 in 1928. Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent.”
Yet at the same time, prohibition was repealed. And we all do things, every day, that are illegal – like making and sharing animated GIFs of copyrighted content. Or, in states like Washington and Colorado, many people consume federally illegal, schedule 1 substance called marijuana.
The fact is, making something illegal does two things – increase cost, and create an obligation to enforce under the social contract we call law. There are thousands of laws still on the books that simply aren’t enforced, and those laws become something to laugh at as much as an artifact of previous societal values – just like changing values lead to things that were previously OK being named as newly illegal.