MINOT, N.D. — If we were to legalize homicide, removing from the action all legal consequences, who is the first person you’d murder?
Your answer is almost certainly “nobody.” Because you are not a murderer. You do not refrain from killing because it is illegal, but because it is unethical and immoral.
We tend to have a backward notion of our society’s relationship to the law, assuming that our codes and statutes dictate behavior and not the other way around. In practice, the law provides after-the-fact repercussions for actions our society, through the political process, has deemed unacceptable. Whatever crime prevention the law provides is through the forbearance of the criminally inclined who do not wish to chance those repercussions.
Most of us refrain from crime because it’s not in keeping with our values and the law, in a society like ours that is based upon the consent of the governed, reflects our values.
But what happens when large factions of society abandon those values?
I was thinking about that over my Thanksgiving holiday vacation while reading stories about stores being mobbed by thieves in communities from California to Minnesota. The Wall Street Journal describes them as “organized retail thefts,” and they involve sometimes dozens of people piling into a store for a smash-and-grab. These retail establishments have security measures that work well against shoplifters in small groups.
Unfortunately, those measures can be easily overwhelmed when people commit to larceny en masse.
There is little we can do to stop large numbers of people, having abandoned their fidelity to our society’s values, from flagrantly violating the law.