Liberal Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes: The Case for Law Enforcement. (Part 9 of 12)

If individual freedom is defined as the absence of arbitrary coercion – as F. A. Hayek did in his The Constitution of Liberty (1960) – it is clear that a government that bases most of its decisions on rules known to all will have to be less arbitrary than the one who makes decisions according to his own criteria of opportunity. Of course, this also requires an effective notion of the principle of equality before the law, since decisions based on norms that prescribe privileges according to definitions of races, estates or social classes will also be arbitrary. The same occurs with the other characteristics of what some authors have called a free government: division of powers, system of cross-checks between them, declarations of rights and guarantees, principles such as that of closure, the notion of representativeness of public offices and the requirement of their suitability to exercise them and other elements that make up the Rule of Law. The protection of individual liberty as the absence of arbitrary coercion comprises a whole set of political institutions and judicial procedures that make the limits to the free will of citizens and rulers legitimate. However, the level of law enforcement has generally been considered sidelong for both political and legal theory, relegating it to a purely sociological and even anthropological level. The law enforcement thus appears as a kind of “logical form” of law and politics, since it does not fully belong to either of the two territories, but rather delimits them.

This meant that the level of normative application has been seen as a social phenomenon, which in any case could be studied by an intersection between sociology and economics, as can be seen in the studies carried out by Gary Becker at the time; the same as the approach practiced centuries ago by Cesare Beccaría (who Joseph Schumpeter would label “the Italian Adam Smith”).

However, the high or low level of application of legal norms does not in itself constitute a sociological or anthropological phenomenon, since the commitment to the effective law enforcement depends directly on a political decision. This political decision activates a series of feedback mechanisms in society that allows it to be described as an autonomous and automatic system, as is any incentive system, but such uses and social practices are not the cause of regulatory compliance or non-compliance, but rather its adaptive response to the aforementioned political decision that underlies at all times.

Therefore, an approach that characterizes low regulatory compliance as the social response to the political decision to implement a low level of law enforcement requires a behavioral model consisting of individual utility-maximizing agents in their decisions, both at the level of citizens as well as government officials and magistrates. According to this behavioral model, it is government agents who seek to maximize their power by reducing the level of law enforcement, in order to gain discretion in its exercise; while ordinary citizens seek to minimize the costs of such discretion on the part of the rulers trying to evade compliance with a law that in a relatively low number of cases is actually applied.

Putting an end to such a state of affairs depends on a political decision: that of enforcing the law for the majority of cases and limiting exceptions to it to the minimum possible. However, since this will bind the rulers to the law and reduce their discretionary power, it should not be expected that such a decision will be taken spontaneously by the governing bodies, but under pressure from the branches of the state whose function consists of the control of government acts, such as the congress and the judicial system.

However, as already mentioned, the political system itself is in a trap, since raising the levels of law enforcement right off the bat would mean making effective punishments and sanctions pressed for a lower level of enforcement. For this reason, an improvement in the levels of law enforcement requires, previously or at least simultaneously, a reduction in the volumes of repressive sanctions, fines and compensation. A similar reasoning must be done for tax collection cases, since many times the tax levels discount a certain evasion rate. Reducing the tax evasion rate requires a prior or simultaneous tax reduction.

Law enforcement and political regime

As has been stated, the degree of compliance with legal norms by a population does not depend on cultural issues (far from it, ethnic), but is a variable on which governments can influence in a decisive way. The main instrument that governments have when it comes to encouraging (or discouraging) citizens’ compliance with the right is to regulate the degree of law enforcement. Once it has been decided what degree of regulatory compliance by the population the government intends to achieve, it remains to implement an efficient use of the budget item in order to achieve said objective while sacrificing the least amount of resources possible.

Thus, if a government decides that regulatory compliance should be close to 100%, then it will have to provide its supervisory system, security forces, and its judiciary with the necessary resources to obtain such a degree of law enforcement that show a clear signal to the population that the sanctions, repressive or pecuniary, that the law provides, will have to be applied. This will mean that whoever complies with the law will not incur any opportunity cost in terms of waiving possible advantages derived from its non-compliance, since such non-compliance by its competitors and other third parties is highly unlikely.

Of course these considerations belong to the field of “instrumental reason.” Before discussing the necessary mechanisms to achieve a high degree of compliance with the law by the population, it is imperative to discuss what type of law such a political regime will have. A democratic, modern, and liberal regime requires that the laws respect and ensure the validity of certain values, such as recognition and respect for human dignity, the right of each individual to have their own life plan, or as at the time It had been listed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, ensuring stability in possession, his peaceful transfer of property, and the fulfillment of promises. It is useless to theorize about techniques to achieve a high degree of compliance with the law, if they are to be used by a regime that is dedicated to curtailing freedoms.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 9 in a 12-part essay; you can read Part 8 here or read the essay in its entirety here.]

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