Law and honesty

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ALL of us drivers give a little growl when speed limits are mentioned, but once out of our cars and back on our feet we notice again that cars have become too dominant in our streets and lanes.

To make our communities more livable, cars have to calm down. (Your correspondent A F Osborn, 25 May, 2012). A quick internet search has not found the source of the slogan “Unenforceable laws are bad laws”, but it sounds like J S Mill whom Dickens loved to hate.

For the common good, people have to restrain natural but damaging impulses, and over history, communities have made laws and rules to guide and enforce this. But total enforcement would be a madman’s fantasy – think Stalin. At the moment the best examples of unenforceable laws are those on dishonesty. If you shoplift from Tesco, you can go to prison. But if you blight a generation by vast financial dishonesty, governments cannot marshall the power to stop you.

As well as the “Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith wrote a companion book about obligations to each other. Laws have to have outer defences in the shape of ordinary people’s standards of honesty and decency and sense of community. At the moment, our sharper young people are getting the message that life is a lottery anyway, and that the way to be above the law is to be rich enough and selfish enough to say, for example, that “taxes are for little people”. An urgent task is to develop better legal procedures across frontiers, that will be effective against the selfish few.

It’s hard to explain these complex issues briefly and in simple words. But a new book: “What money can’t buy” by Harvard professor and lawyer Michael Sandel, makes a start at addressing the problem.

Mrs Jenny Tillyard, Seaford