Liberal Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes: The Case for Law Enforcement. (Part 4 of 12)

Different degrees of law enforcement

Law enforcement systems range from ideal types of pure blind and automatic rule enforcement to pure discretion. The ideal of automatic law enforcement denies the reality of errors, the fragmentation of knowledge of special circumstances of time and place, and information costs. Meanwhile, complete discretion is the very negation of the law as abstract and general normative statements. However, defining both poles, the first factually unrealizable and the second contradictory in itself, allows us to identify the trend that characterizes the various legal systems given.

Likewise, information costs and discretion are variables that determine the degree of law enforcement. Both the criminal sanctions and the sentences to compensate damages depend to a large extent on questions of proof and evidence about the facts contained in the norm as a condition for the application of the legal solution envisaged. Likewise, the law itself imposes limits and criteria for collecting and assessing evidence, such as due process guarantees, which include the right not to testify against oneself and the inviolability of the person. Therefore, when a rule provides, for example, a fine of $1,000 – for the offender, the deterrent of said consequent depends on the degree of probability that the legal system will identify the infraction, the person responsible for the infraction and be able to prove said fact before the courts in a process supervised by the offender, who may present his defense and offer his own evidence.

Continuing with this example, if the probability of being fined is 80%, then the fine represented by the eventual offender is reduced to $ 800. Suppose then, that a driver needs to get to work on time so that the day is not deducted, which would mean a loss of $900. Then, the person in our example will maximize his choice if he violates any traffic rule, assuming the risk of losing $800 – in order to avoid the risk of losing $900. Of course, if it is discovered, your gross loss will be $1,000, but your net loss will have been reduced to $100, while if it is not discovered, your gross result will be $0, but your Net result will amount to $900, since thanks to his decision to assume the risk of being fined, he avoided losing the payment for the day of work. Therefore, given the incentive system given to the maximizing agent in our example, the most rational thing for him is to assume the risk of transgressing the norm.

This elementary example suggests several conclusions. The first one is that it should not be ruled out that society itself maximizes the utility of its resources by admitting a certain range of transgressions. However, these cases are not extra-systemic, but are justified or exempted from liability, as the case may be, within the legal system. Running a red light in order to urgently take a badly injured person to the hospital is a cause of justification. Doing it on a completely deserted street in order not to be late for work could be accepted as an acquittal. In these cases we are also faced with a certain degree of judicial discretion, in order to weigh the legal meaning of certain facts and circumstances as justifying or mitigating responsibility. But another issue related to this is to recognize that the agent himself has a higher level of information regarding his own circumstances than that of any other external observer, which allows him to make better decisions attentive to his level of immediacy with the facts. Finally, society itself also organizes itself spontaneously around a certain margin of extra-systemic regulatory breaches: in the example mentioned, society as a whole will maximize the utility of its resources if the offender arrives early at work, at the risk of paying a fee. penalty fee; while the traffic fines will have as their real destination those drivers who are not pressured by such an urgency, in which case it is more socially beneficial that they comply with the traffic regulations.

The latter brings us to another question, of singular relevance, which consists in defining the distinction between a liberal legal system and a police one. Legal systems that recognize the value of human dignity and are organized around a principle of autonomy of the will give each individual the power to decide whether to transgress certain norms at the price of assuming their consequences. Instead, police systems seek to prevent each individual from making such a decision, for the sake of certain collective values, such as security or mere compliance with the orders issued by the public powers. Of course, even in liberal legal systems, values ​​such as the protection of human life and public safety entail certain mechanisms and norms for crime prevention, but always considering that these mean an injury to individual freedoms, not an absolute public authority.

Finally, although without definitively exhausting this debate, one characteristic of particular systemic relevance deserves to be mentioned, on which it will have to be discussed in greater depth: the relationship between the decision to increase the degree of application of the norm or to increase the threat of punishment, in order to achieve a certain degree of compliance by citizens.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 4 in a 12-part essay; you can read Part 3 here or read the essay in its entirety here.]

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