The recently elected Manhattan District Attorney has directed his office to stress “alternatives to incarceration.” Some states have altered theft laws such that it is a misdemeanor if the dollar amount is below a certain threshold. Lenient bail laws are letting violent offenders back on the streets hours after booking.
Much like a badly-maintained bridge or building, a society plagued by this kind of “legal fatigue” can collapse under its own weight. The fact that there are countless rules from multiple sources (federal, state, municipal, bureaus, departments, councils, etc.) makes it impossible to always be compliant. Law enforcement cannot possibly keep up in policing, processing, trying, and punishing, given the never-ending onslaught of more rules and regulations. Lawbreaking, therefore, eventually becomes the accepted norm.
Following basic economics, if you subsidize a good or service, you get more of it. By lowering the cost or punishment of crime, you get more of it. This increases the burden on an already fatigued legal system which contributes to the escalating cycle of more crime and less enforcement. Legal fatigue is one of the earliest symptoms of societal collapse.
As this collapse becomes obvious, newly-woke politicians are trying to shift the blame to inequality and historical/systematic oppression. “It’s not their fault they are poor and resorting to crime. Therefore, they should not be incarcerated.” This is a form of distributive justice. But instead of the government taxing then re-distributing, they are removing themselves as the middleman and letting the unfairly-disadvantaged criminals help themselves.
At the same time that law-breakers are being treated as helpless victims, police officers are being treated as the real criminals. Again, if you raise the cost of a good or service, you get less of it. Police officers and district attorneys are therefore less inclined to enforce the law for fear of themselves being prosecuted, fired, killed, or labeled with a scarlet letter.
Since history starts with your own memories, chronic legal fatigue becomes normalized. Public defecation and homelessness “have always been a problem.” Theft and murder rates will always rise. Financial crimes will always occur. Stray bullets will continue to kill young children; “that’s life in the big city.” This mindset allows legal fatigue to persist and become part of a progressively declining society.
Legal fatigue also makes a society poorer. 50 years ago, maybe only in a bank or high-end jewelry store would you find private security guards. Now they’re a common fixture in not just retail stores, but also public buildings and wealthy neighborhoods. Gated communities, “smart” alarm systems, and security bars on windows are all extra costs and symptomatic of legal fatigue. So are increased costs of law enforcement, deadweight loss of property crime, and loss of life. The U.S. might have been a very different place had this rot been stopped at its first sign.
The worst part is that there is little incentive for those in charge to fix the problem. Some politicians run for office on the issue of law enforcement. But if they “fix” the problem, they lose the issue. Ironically, police officers who do their job are at greater risk of termination or death. Worse, allowing for greater crime is followed by demands for larger budgets by police chiefs. If the crime rate is dropping, they lose their best funding argument.
Is this descent into poverty and chaos inevitable? If a society strays from fundamental laws of human conduct by crafting rules to achieve “end-state” dreams that lack objective definitions, such as environmental justice and fairness, then the door is flung wide open to corruption. This is of course compounded by the fact that the law per se and its enforcement are public goods. To be administered equally, it must be enforced by a single entity, namely the government. This brings its own set of problems.
As with most cures in life, there is an easy way and a hard way. The hard way is enforcing the law by doing the work and holding those in charge accountable. Since those actions involve immediate pain and risk for politicians and their bureaucrats, our current leaders will likely choose the path of least resistance, letting the rot grow until society collapses.