“Many criminologists believe,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “that the source of the state’s pacifying effect isn’t just its brute coercive power but the trust it commands among the populace.” People do not respect laws and rules simply out of fear. They may obey and follow rules and laws when they know they are being watched, but that is not the same as actually following the laws because they agree with them or understand why the laws exist.
Humans do not follow every law perfectly. There are some laws we will absolutely follow and some to which we will almost always adhere, and some laws that we will generally ignore. Pinker’s quote is getting to the heart of why there are some laws we will always, or almost always follow, relative to others that we may ignore completely. Whether we respect and trust the state is a big factor in whether we follow the laws, even if we don’t suspect there is any consequence for breaking laws.
When we perceive that the state is unjust in its application of the law, then deliberately disobeying a law doesn’t seem to be as big of a problem. When we sense that the state is corrupt, then we have trouble justifying to ourselves that the state’s laws are important to follow. When we see others doing the same then there is a chance of a positive feedback loop with no one following the law. Brute force is not enough to change our behaviors and get us to actually respect and follow laws. When we trust the government and when we believe the government is responsive then we will be more likely to actually follow the law without constantly trying to cut corners.