Americans tend to conflate the law and morality. We believe, that is, that we make things illegal because they’re immoral. While we might admit that there are exceptions, we tend to think that our laws generally reflect what is right and wrong, not a simple or arbitrary effort to control the population in ways that people who influence policy want.
This is why changing laws can sometimes be so hard. If it isn’t just about policy, but ethics, then changing a law means allowing something immoral to be legal.
In some other countries, people don’t think like this. They see law as simple public policy, not ethics, which leads to a different attitude toward enforcement.
In Amsterdam, for example, possession and cultivation of marijuana is a misdemeanor. Despite the city’s famous and deserved reputation for the open use of marijuana and the”coffee shops” that sell it, it’s illegal. The city, though, decided that policing it was more trouble than it was worth, so it has a policy of non-enforcement.
An even more fascinating example is their approach to street level sex work. While prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, “streetwalking” is not. Still, there will always be sex workers who can’t afford to rent a work space. These women, some of the most economically deprived, will be on the streets whether the city likes it or not.
Instead of adding to their problems by throwing them all in jails or constantly fining them, the city built a circular drive just outside of town equipped with semi-private stalls. In other words, the city decided against enforcing the law on “streetwalking” and instead spent tax money to build a location in which individuals could engage in behavior that was against the law… and they considered it a win-win.
I thought of this when Julieta R. sent in this picture, shot by her friend at the Aberdeen Pub in Edinburgh, Scotland. Sex in the bathroom, it appears, had begun to inconvenience customers. But, instead of trying to eradicate the behavior, the Pub just said: “Ok, fine, but just keep it to cubicle no. 4.”
Americans would never go for this. Because we think it’s immoral to break the law, not just illegal, we would consider this to be hypocrisy. It doesn’t matter if enforcing the law is impractical (marijuana), if doing so does more harm than good (sex work), or if it’d be easier and cheaper not to do it (cubicle no. 4), in America we believe that the person breaking the law is bad and letting them get away with it is letting a bad person go unpunished.
If we had a practical orientation toward the law, though, instead of a moral one, we might be quicker to change laws, be more willing to weigh the benefits of enforcement with its costs, be able to consider whether enforcement is ethical, feel more comfortable with just letting people break the law, and even helping them do so, if we decided that it was the “right” thing to do.
This post originally appeared in 2010.
Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.