Has Covid Also Infected Americans’ Respect for the Law?

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The lists of ways Covid has changed America are long and growing. Here is yet another nomination: The pandemic has changed how Americans view the law.

For most Americans, the primary interactions with law enforcement occur in their motor vehicles. If you drive too fast or run a red light, you run the risk of a traffic ticket and points on your license.

Not all driver encounters with law enforcement are routine, of course, and there is a difference between an unjustified traffic stop and premeditated law-breaking. During the era of civil disobedience, Americans marched for civil rights or to protest the Vietnam War. Sometimes they broke the law deliberately, but there was a finely honed sense of the various lines. If your goal was to be arrested, you knew how to achieve it without being locked away for years. There were guides for how to behave and get arrested, and many arrests were orchestrated.

Martin Luther King Jr. was not shocked when he ended up in Birmingham jail, where he composed his famous letter. Getting arrested was a sign of status with other members of the movement, and multiple arrests meant that you understood the lines well enough to be spending most of your time out in the world, ready to get arrested yet again.

Today, although Americans have more information than ever before, many fail to consider these earlier lessons. The radicals of Jan. 6 were brazen with their selfies, their YouTube clips, their Facebook postings and their willingness to talk to media. Their smart phones left data trails (how many switched to airplane mode before entering the Capitol?).

If you fell asleep in 1968 and awakened last month from your Rip van Winkle-like slumber, you might have thought those were deliberate strategies of civil disobedience, designed to create martyrs and build the future movement. During the Vietnam War, several monks set themselves on fire in protest, and allowed the resulting conflagration to be photographed and filmed.

There seems to be no such deliberate strategy here. In June 2020, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order saying that anyone who vandalized federal buildings would be prosecuted “to the fullest extent permitted under Federal law,” which carries prison sentences of up to 10 years. While some parts of the Jan. 6 event were meticulously planned, such as the placement of the pipe bombs, for most part it seemed more like an act of drunken revelry or hooliganism. No American equivalent of Alexey Navalny has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the protest and become a political martyr.

Then there is the GameStop story, in which many traders have coordinated through the internet to bid up the prices of some shorted stocks through the Robinhood platform. Their actions plausibly fit the legal definition of market manipulation, but that term seems to be not well understood by the traders.

It is not exactly a good idea to tell the media that “my goal is to bankrupt these billionaires.” Many others have spoken of destroying the hedge funds, or of manipulating the price to reverse the inequality of wealth. Another motivation, openly expressed by some participants, seems simply to be part of a movement, if only for a while. This does not seem to be about SEC regulations or collateral requirements.

Why do so many Americans today have such an unusual relationship with the law? Has the relative isolation of the pandemic made people more susceptible to crowd enthusiasms, and thus less respectful of authority? Or is it that their daily interactions with the internet are so frequent and intense that their emotions are governed by some new set of principles, and the law feels like a distant memory? Might some recent leaders have been setting bad examples when it comes to respecting the law?

2020 was also a year in which the U.S. murder rate rose significantly — by more than 50% in many cities — and reckless driving was much more common.

If the U.S. is ever going to get back to normal, we need to understand this problem. It’s not just about breaking the law. It’s that so many Americans don’t even seem to notice that the law applies to them, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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