Laws work without enforcement
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #60

Everyone is a potential criminal, but the world is not really suffering from a deluge of ubiquitious crime. True, crimes, or violations of law, usually do attract punishment; however, there just doesn't exist a mechanism for law enforcement omnipresent enough to explain our (relatively) crime-free world. But perhaps people are law- abiding not because they fear the neighbourhood police officer. Perhaps people generally obey laws because doing otherwise is not nice.

Different societies live with different moral traditions. Law is a peculiar morality in itself, a formal rule-book that often has little of the obvious common sense of the traditional. Still, most societies have come to incorporate a degree of acceptance of laws in their moral traditions. Some, such as the Japanese, and East Asians in general, are very respectful of the law. Others - Americans, or Indians for that matter - prefer to respect some personal conscience. This difference in respect for the law is reflected in the disparity of crime rates between cultures; the correlation between the crime rate and the strength of law enforcement, though, is at best tenuous.

Cyberspace is a multitude of cultures in itself. Most have scant respect for formal law, mainly because formal legal systems do not address the fast-changing moral conflicts of the infosphere. What little moral tradition there is across all the wired world is limited to very basic issues, in recognition of the dynamic and diverse nature of the information society. But some leftovers from formal law do and will work. Not thanks to the thought police - which, cyberspace being a realm of ideas and not tangible goods, any wired police force would be. Apart from the vast odds against any force capable of defeating the double-edged advance of technology across what is, in effect, a salad bowl of jurisdictions as much as of cultures, enforcement just isn't cost-effective in cyberspace, compared to the alternative. That is the culmination of a police-free 'goodwill law' based instead on voluntary acceptance.

Goodwill law has many advantages. It is very cheap, and this is important in a trans-jurisdiction domain such as cyberspace where costs can skyrocket and there is no single government conveniently at hand to pay the bill. It is effective, based as it is on voluntary participation, ensuring that all the tools of social punishment are brought into play when it is violated. It is particularly suited to the information society, with its very limited spectrum of crimes most of which resolve into forms of contractual violation, suited to semi-formal arbitration rather than formal law. And the same privacy-enhancing technologies that make police work very difficult can be turned around to the benefit of goodwill law, by safeguarding the integrity of voluntary transactions. Best of all, violating goodwill law is most certainly not nice.

Law based on acceptance rather than enforcement need not be entirely ad hoc, developing at the whim of a haphazard society. Since its basis is the generation of goodwill, and a sense of guilt upon its violation, it is eminently susceptible to propaganda of all sorts. Governments and media oligopolies can influence its development, and so can anarchist believers in the absolute freedom of information. There will be order, but not without compromises all around, which is what the 'establishment' must realize - for at the threshold of a new civilization, there is an opportunity to make the pen truly mightier than the sword.

  • Electric Dreams Index
  • Homepage