Laws can oppress--for proof, we need look no further than North Korea, Turkmenistan, or, for many, Arizona. Laws and regulations can also liberate. They can liberate in the freedoms protected, we may all agree. But they may also liberate in a more expansive, and counter-intuitive, way. I have been writing lately about how, in some domains, regulations that reduce choice may improve overall wellbeing.
An even more powerful case is made in Lynn Stout's provocative new book, Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People (to be published by Princeton University Press in November). Stout presents a powerful and compelling case for the role of law in promoting "prosocial" (conscientious) behavior. (What she terms "conscience" is closely related to my use of the term "moral" in postings below.)
She convincingly shows the flaws in the current fetish for "incentivizing" certain behavior within organizations, demonstrating how the good-intentioned road paved with incentives and marked with accountability metrics can lead to the corruption of virtues and conscience. (She also acknowledges that there are cases where these incentive structures seem to work well.)
She writes that
"Contemporary experts often assume the best way to get people to follow rules is to use material incentives and disincentives, much like a circus trainer who relies on sugar cubes and a whip to make an animal perform a trick. Yet by assuming only incentives matter, they may be missing an essential ingredient in the recipe for changing human behavior. This essential ingredient is conscience."
Since law "is mostly about promoting unselfish prosocial behavior," it follows that laws may act in ways that help us not only cooperate and compete better, but that help us be the sort of people we want to be. Indeed, as Stout points out, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests prosocial behavior is positively associated with a holistic sense of wellbeing that includes economic prosperity and personal happiness.
This is an important message, and Stout makes a power and eloquent case. Cultivating Conscience should be required reading for policy makers as well as academics.