Crime and Consequence

Why small towns are quiet, and noisy cities are big

an orchard in spring
a law is valuable, not because it is a law, but because there is right in it

Definitions

There are strong laws and weak laws. The federal statute against killing someone is a strong law, the rule to tell your parents when you’re borrowing their car is a weak law. Strong laws have harsh consequences, are usually part of the state’s legal system and are meant to restrict your actions so that you don’t disrupt society too much. Weak laws have comparatively lax consequences, are usually part of an implicit social agreement between people, and are meant to enable you to do more. If you didn’t have the car-borrowing rule, you wouldn’t be allowed to borrow the car, but the existence of the rule allows you to travel further while still functioning well with your family.

Speaking of consequences, the consequences of breaking each type of law are different. Whenever you break a law, regardless of type, there are natural consequences and imposed consequences. The natural consequence is the direct effect of your action, the imposed consequence is the added effect of breaking the law. If you were to kill someone, the lifetime prison sentence would be an imposed consequence, the dead body a natural one. Natural consequences exist whether the law exists or not — the dead person is still dead, even in an anarchic, lawless void. Strong laws always carry imposed consequences: nobody ends up in prison as a result of their actions unless they physically walk into a prison. Weak laws may or may not carry imposed consequences, but even when they do they will be unevenly enforced and subject to interpretation.

Weak laws are called weak because they’re easy to abuse. There’s not a particularly robust system of prevention keeping you from transgressing them, and weak consequences often hurt the victim more than the lawbreaker. Strong laws are hard to abuse, and strong consequences come down heavy on the lawbreaker. Strong laws are prevalent in the legal system because they’re tough, resilient and widely applicable, whereas weak laws are subject to manipulation by the first malicious agent who comes under them. In fact, they’re so easy to break they might as well not be called laws at all. ‘Rules’ or ‘suggestions’ seems more apt. But as it turns out, in every area except enforcement weak laws are superior to strong. A good strong law minimizes unwanted behavior — a good weak law eliminates it. A strong law affects the transgressor after the transgression, a weak law before. A strong law may be overreaching, disallowing acceptable behavior in the same way that an asymptotic upper bound on a function often includes some area above the function as well as all the area below, while a weak law is designed to flex to the needs of the particular situation. The weak law “offer help to those in need” is equally suitable for offering a ride to a man walking along the side of the road in the rain, or for helping a friend to move house. Intuition and common sense guide weak laws, while strong laws have to be workable even in the total absence of common sense.

Strong laws are often negative and weak laws often positive, that is, strong laws tell you what not to do and weak laws tell you what you should do. Given the extra work required by weak laws, you might wonder why anyone would subject themselves to them, especially seeing as they are largely voluntary. We’ll explore the benefits of weak laws soon, but first, another leg of our triangle, this one on communities.

The Churn

Almost since its foundation, the United States has been subject to continual urbanization. The stories of American communities begin with a single explorer cresting the frontier, and end with a bustling center of industry and wealth. The environmental and economic impact of this trend have been discussed at length elsewhere, but there’s comparatively little focus on the difference between rural and urban communities in terms of socialization, or the impact of that difference on the people who live in each.

an orchard in summer
the law is the public conscience

The prototypical rural society is hereditary. People are born in the same town they die in, sometimes the same house. Locals can trace their family back for generations on the same land. Everyone knows everyone, and outsiders are immediately recognized as such. Certain trappings of urban society may exist, such as restaurant franchises, but the similarity is mostly visual — a small town Denny’s differs from the next door Ma-and-Pa diner only by the logo hanging on the wall. The rural community is spontaneous by necessity — without comprehensive infrastructure or heavy administrative staffing in every sphere, there’s no way for things to happen in a structured, bureaucratic manner.

Urban life is, naturally, different in every way. Fundamentally migratory, urban populations are sustained by a continual influx of people from rural areas, rather than a self-sustaining birth rate. Urban dwellers are surrounded by strangers, and, because migration is so common, they live with the constant possibility that the people they know may soon be replaced by people they don’t. The coffee shop barista who used to greet you each morning goes back to school, your apartment manager is replaced by another rising corporate careerist, membership in your running club waxes and wanes. Every subculture and community in an urban setting must be constantly prepared to deal with strangers and the unknown. Everything must also be legally defensible, and regulations, disclaimers and committees rule over day to day urban life.

Hypotenuse

Connecting the two legs of our triangle is easy. Urban life is dictated by strong rules, rural life by weak ones.

Urban systems are set up to punish and discourage bad-faith actors. This is necessary because the natural consequences of strong law crimes are insufficient. So what are the natural consequences of those crimes, and how are they usually handled? Let’s take murder as an example — strong law dictates that murderers get prison time, mutilation, or even execution, depending on the time period and place, but always the consequence is extreme, and the crime is relatively uncomplicated. How does murder function without strong rules imposed? In the simplest example, there is no one except the killer and the killed. The natural consequences might be potential physical danger if the victim tries to fight back, and degrading mental health from doing something so violent.Neither of these are particularly compelling when compared to some of the potential benefits of murder — taking all of the victim’s possessions, eliminating a rival or even just simplifying the world and asserting dominance. Plenty has been written already on the human capacity for violence when unbounded by social mores.

But strong law is not the only way to prevent murder; weak laws can serve just as well. Imagine instead of only two people, there are fifty, and both killer and killed are each one among many. Now things get more complicated. The killer doesn’t merely harm the victim when killing, but the entire group. The loss of a member impacts everyone in a group that small, and in addition the killer is a threat to all the other members left alive. The group will respond with punishment: anything from ostracization to a vengeance killing. This is entirely without strong laws, by the way. A weak law system can be just as brutal as its stronger cousin. But these consequences are just as natural as the possibility of the victim fighting back in a one-on-one situation. They are simply the result of the group defending themselves, and they are not devised with the express purpose of punishing the wrongdoer. “Vengeance killing sounds a lot like punishment,” you say, but I disagree. The impulse for vengeance on behalf of a group member is a response to danger. Assuming the murder was unjustified, the murderer is capable of killing again for equally insufficient reasons. This is why not every killing is punished by an anarchic social group like this: if the killing is justified, say, in response to some other evil, the killer is not evil and not a threat.

an orchard in fall
laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through

Weak law punishes one instance of killing and not another. It does so not based off of predetermined decision trees, but by harnessing the power of human intuition. The tendencies of the group’s members inform the tendencies of its rules. This fits each rule to the needs and predilections of the specific group, and even generates or abolishes rules as the group needs. Instinct, the well-being of the group as a whole, the well-being of each individual member and the biases of each individual member all feed into the weak-rule system. In fact, weak laws cannot be exported from one group to another, because they derive all their power and meaning from the people to which they apply. Only the principle of weak law can be applied across societies, and it molds itself to fit the needs of wherever it is applied.

Rural communities are able to operate by weak laws moreso than urban because people living in rural communities have more intrinsic motivation to sustain the status quo. Communities are more rigid in these backwater places, with fewer comings and goings, more family ties and personal history. Urban life is marked by constant job changes, renting apartments and a global interconnectedness. Contrast with the single-workplace careers, generational homesteads and relative isolation of the countryside. Weak laws are cultural norms, and they must be enforced by individuals with a passion to uphold them. A person renting an apartment for a single year before moving to a different part of the city with several hundred thousand people between has little reason to care for the well-being of the community they’re in, or to even learn the weak laws of that community. It takes time, investment and a lack of options to create that intrinsic motivation.

An urban environment simply has too many options for bad actors to shield themselves with. They can move away, or simply interact with a different social group — there are plenty within range, after all. Career turnover is frequent, and rarely do people have generational ties to a place. As a result the state must build extrinsic motivation for people to stay in line. Strong laws are more strictly enforced because there is no “safety net” of weak laws to handle problems the state doesn’t catch. Police are more aggressive. They become more adversary than ally. Trust erodes — but there is already little trust in densely packed urban environments, because, again, people have little intrinsic motivation to behave well or to hold others to a standard of behavior.

Implications

Weak rule is cultural norms is intrinsic motivation is investment in the community. Strong rule is word of law is extrinsic motivation is policing the community. I believe these are not properties of any particular people, but simply emergent properties of people living closely packed with many options, or far-flung with few options. This is not meant as an indictment of urban life, either — it has many benefits which I haven’t talked about, including that wealth of options in terms of career, lifestyle and community.

Nonetheless, let’s say that a person is taken with the idea of a weak-law community, and wishes to structure their own society after it. The laws in specific will be determined by the material and social conditions of that community. In other words, the variety of urban life is that there are many potential ways to live. There are equally many potential ways to live a rural life, but only a small slice of them will be available to a given rural community.

This is not a new idea. It begins with Marxism and continues with Nationalism. Each place will implement these ideologies differently, the ideology is a guiding philosophy that serves as a framework for laying the actual laws. The concept of weak law is a value system, and the laws are determined in accordance with that value and the practical concerns of a specific community. Strong law, on the other hand, is Globalist and Liberal in bent — it is inevitable for scholars of ethics to gather and determine the best way to structure strong law so as to keep people safe while respecting their autonomy, and once this optimal strong-law has been distilled there is no argument against importing it to every community which requires strong laws: it is by definition the best possible answer to their problems.

“Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.” — the tie between law and cultural values seems, at some level, unavoidable. Perhaps someday we will refine and refactor the ideal legal code, but until then we would do well to understand the variance and volatility of law, whether between nations or between communities.

an orchard in winter
law is order, and good law is good order

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Ostav Nadezhdu

Ostav Nadezhdu

idiot

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