L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

10 March 2007 Blog Home : March 2007 : Permalink

Scofflaw Society

There is a belief that here in France, and for that matter almost any other developed nation, everyone is in fact guilty of breaking some law or another repeatedly. Indeed one of the "root causes" for the Car-B-Q crisis in the French immigrant ghettosuburbs was that the inhabitants felt (quite possibly correctly) that they were punished for misdemeanours which other non-immigrant French residents were not punished for. This latter is of course not a uniquely French trait - google "Driving While Black" - but what is, I think relatively new, is the level to which everyone violates the law (and I admit to being guilty myself of the odd violation here and there). This is, it seems to me, a major change from the situation of a hundred years ago where it was fairly simple to be law-abiding. For example (in the UK, USA and I assume France) entire classes of offense such as drunk-driving or speeding did not exist. For that matter there were few if any regulations about the sale of drugs or poisons or the ownership of weapons:

Yet, any man, woman or street urchin could own a gun in Victorian Britain — at least until 1870 when a licence fee was charged if they wanted to carry the weapon outside their home. And, surprisingly, there was very little gun crime.

The right to own firearms was enshrined in the 1689 Bill of Rights (the Americans had to get their ideas from somewhere) and as late as 1900 the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, was happy to declare how much he would “laud the day when there was a rifle in every cottage in England”. [...]

True, in 1903 a Pistols Act restricted small handgun ownership to those who were not “drunken or insane”. This did not prove overrestrictive.

Other potential offenses such as tax evasion were limited to the seriously rich because very few people paid income taxes and very few companies paid corporation taxes. According to the IFS (PDF) fewer than 4 million people (families) paid UK income tax in 1938 and total government income was about 9% of GDP in 1907 vs 25% or so in 1938. Hence it seems likely that far fewer than 4 million people paid taxes in 1907. The UK population in 1907 was about 40 million so, since national insurance had not been introduced, less than 10% of the population would have paid any income tax or NI. The 1902 education act required people to pay for their local schools and by 1906 about 170 people had been imprisoned for refusing to pay. I suspect a similar number were liable each year for non-payment of rates or other local taxes.

In other words the average person, a person who spent the year at a steady job and failing to be drunk and disorderly at cup finals, horse races or the boat race would have no opportunity to break the law and would not have had any contact with "the state" beyond his local council. Today this is not the case.

Just about everyone breaks the traffic laws. Many of us speed, many others park in illegal places, others don't wear setbelts all the time, drive with the mandatory insurance or a valid driving license. Some of us even drive drunk, others fail to give way correctly to other cars or pedestrians, to come to a complete stop at STOP signs or always stop when the traffic light is red. In the vast majority of all these cases (as in about 99% of them, even including the drunk driving ones) no harm is done to anyone by the fact that we broke the law. None of these would crimes in 1907 and because no policeman or speed camera actually catches us we are not officially criminals today.

Then there are the drug crimes. In most countries it is now illegal to smoke anything other than tobacco or drink any drug other than alcohol or caffeine (or whatever the one is in chocolate). I don't know many druggies these days but I can name half a dozen who live within a few kilometers of my home in France. As far as I know none of them are guilty of anything more than smoking pot but, officially, this is a crime. In the 19th century the British actually fought the Opium wars against China in order to be allowed to sell Opium and while I think many people felt the Opium wars were a disgrace, the prevalence of such drugs in the western world was not uncommon - Sherlock Holmes was described as using either cocaine or morphine or both and this is more of a character quirk than a flaw.

Then there are the tax evaders. Again I can only speak for this corner of France but I would be very surprised if there is any builder, plumber, electrician or gardener who is not failing to declare some amount of income and I have no doubt that many of thsoe who employ these people are only too happy to pay a certain amount in cash because they get a significant reduction for doing so. Ditto every bar and restaurant owner. I once had a former bar owner tell me, in all seriousness, that it was impossible for a bar to make money on the Côte d'Azur if it was 100% legal; I suspect he was exaggerating slightly but only slightly. Then there are the people running the stalls in markets, the taxi drivers etc. etc.

And there are other crimes I have ignored, from flouting planning permission to dumping rubbish and the illegal bonfires that seem to be remarkably common around here. Oh and I believe (and this is a crime I'll own up to) it is required by French law that foreigners should always carry their passport or ID card with them at all times when they are a in public place. Finally there are the intellectual property crimes from buying a fake designer bag or football shirt in Ventimiglia market to downloading "pirated" music or videos (or books). In some cases there are even people who remove the DRM stuff from their music, videos or books.

All of these things are crimes, very few of them were crimes in 1907 and of the ones that were very few people had any incentive to commit them. The problem today is that because we are all (or nearly all) scofflaws, we don't accord the law with the majesty it deserves. This is frequently because we can see that certain laws were written, or modified, at the behest of some special interest group (music publishers, black people, farmers ...) and benefits them at the expense of harming others. The fact that the laws frequently end up harming a large chunk of the constituency they are supposed to help as well is mere irony on the cake. Worse, to my mind, is that we are seeing more and more laws such as the recent one about filming violence which appear to be deliberstely written to be broader than required to solve the problem they are supposed to solve.

The result of these trends is that the generally law-abiding are forced to break more and more laws just to survive. And the corrollory to this is that we lose our trust in the law as a whole and tend to have sympathy for other criminals that we know socially. In other words we are reverting to a tribal situation where we trust our tribe/clan more than we trust outsiders and therefore lose all the benefits of the common law. This is a bad thing because an impartial judiciary is undoubtedly one of the reasons why we have most of the trappings of civilization and why clan based societies have very rarely produced anything of benefit to anyone.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin