Liberal Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes: The Case for Law Enforcement. (Part 8 of 12)

Another aspect of the discretionary law enforcement consists of its selective application to opponents and social groups that fulfill the function of “scapegoats.” The history of humanity, fundamentally of the 20th century, offers unfortunately plenty of examples of such types of practices: application of norms that apparently had fallen into disrepair on certain sectors of society, investigations and meticulous follow-ups of opponents and their families concerning compliance with regulations rarely required of the rest of the citizens, are news that are familiar to the inhabitants of countries with undemocratic governments.

On the other hand, countries in which compliance with the rules is relatively low, generally sanction and enact extremely severe laws, without greater social or political resistance, since, considering its low compliance, few grant it the seriousness that they truly have. However, bearing in mind that the primary and exclusive function of every government consists of enforcing legal norms, the lower the degree of application of them, the greater the degree of discretion that such government will have if it decides to raise the degree of regulatory compliance, either in general terms for the entire legal system, or for a certain set of rules and either for the entire population as a whole or for a selectively identified part of it.

Of course, the selective application of the rules, when it is practiced without distinguishing individuals or social groups, works as a “fine-tuned” mechanism that makes the legal system more efficient. What is sought here are those anomalies that imply an authentic dissolution of the Rule of Law and the outright persecution of individuals or social or ethnic groups. It goes without saying that a legal system with a very high degree of law enforcement gives governments a very restricted margin of maneuver, so it could also be said that the high regulatory application works as a safeguard aimed at guaranteeing equality before the law and to avoid the aforementioned persecutions.

Culturalist explanations vs. systemic ones

The opinion that adherence to the norm is a cultural characteristic that varies from people to people is widely extended, to the point of becoming commonplace. There would be countries or regions that have a higher level of compliance and respect for the law, while kilometers further east or south, the behavior of individuals would change drastically. Theories about climates, religions, the role of civic education, and so on attempt to explain why certain countries abide by the laws they give themselves while others use them as “fa trap for fools”

This writing tries to defend the opposite thesis: it is the level of application of the norms that determines the cultural characteristics of the peoples and not the other way around. Culture is an adaptive response to the institutional determinants in force in each country.

To illustrate this last assertion with a hypothetical example: In a country where regulations are 50% enforced -that is, the citizen interprets it as a coin that turns in the air- no one will want to be within the group of inhabitants whose decisions they are constrained by the rules, since that would place them at a strong disadvantage compared to their peers who do not receive equal limitations, even more so if they are their competitors. Furthermore, regulatory transgression – such as tax evasion, in a context in which competitors do not pay their taxes – can often mean commercial survival for the individual. If, for example, if the municipal authorities impose a series of charges on restaurants in terms of hygiene conditions, number of tables per square meter and labor regulations, but also does not control compliance with such provisions, the merchant who complies with them it will be at a severe disadvantage compared to its competitors, who will be in a position to offer better prices or reinvest the profits from the savings generated by the non-compliance with the regulations in a better quality of service in other aspects of the restaurant.

Of course, inspections by the control body represent a costly expense to finance and, therefore, governments deploy “exemplary actions.” That is, for our example, they inspect a small number of establishments, but enough so that all the rest of the non-inspected businesses still comply with the standard in the event of receiving a random inspection. In these cases, the selective law enforcement is highly efficient: since it achieves high compliance with the law at a relatively lower cost.

However, cases that are dysfunctional have other characteristics. The first of these is that the level of law enforcement by the public powers is really low. The second is that the penalties – imprisonment, fine or compensation – are extremely high, since their main function is to counterbalance the relatively low degree of regulatory application. The third is that the rulers have such a high margin of maneuver, attentive to the low habitual application of the norms, that their application has the same effects as a norm created at the time by the government for a special situation. In other words, in practice the Rule of Law has been dissolved.

This leads us to the distinction between a government that makes decisions based on rules and principles versus another that motivates its decisions on matters of opportunity, merit or convenience, that is, pure discretion. Of course, here we are also faced with two polar definitions, one and the other model of government are ideal types in the Weberian style. Every rule-based government needs to carry out its action with a certain level of discretion. At the same time, even a tyrant, who wields power despotically, needs a minimum of predictable structure, at least to maintain his own identity as a ruling subject. However, it is relevant to establish the distinction between government decisions based on norms and principles and those that are guided exclusively by reasons of opportunity, for the purpose of making a judgment on the level of individual freedom that predominates in a certain political regime.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 8 in a 12-part essay; you can read Part 7 here or read the essay in its entirety here.]