What Makes a Law Effective?


I observed that immediately you sit at the front of a Lagos bus – popularly known as a Danfo – the conductor requests that you use the seat belt. This seat belt is usually a loose length of material that does nothing to protect you in the event of an accident, so it’s quite puzzling why you’re requested to use it. One day, I finally asked a conductor, and he replied, “LASTMA go arrest us if you no wear seat belt.” This got me thinking, Nigeria is infamous for having rules that get broken without any consequence. However, here was this rule being obeyed with fervour by those who are renowned for causing havoc on the roads. What made this rule effective?

Looking at the intended effect of rules, one sees that obedience to rules is driven by self-preserving incentives that usually differ from the original motive of the individual. These self-preserving incentives rest on two pertinent factors that make a rule effective: the probability of getting caught and the penalty of getting caught. For every time we’ve broken a rule, we’ve acted on the perceived probability of getting caught and the actual penalty of getting caught. You stole the meat from your mother’s pot because you either thought she wouldn’t know (low probability of getting caught) or because you felt she wouldn’t punish you even if she caught you (little to no penalty of getting caught).

How does this apply to the danfo drivers? The prevalence of LASTMA around bus routes drastically increases the probability of getting caught while breaking the law – that’s the first factor. The second factor is the severe penalty for breaking the law – LASTMA is infamous in Lagos for its heavy-handed approach. Should one of these factors disappear, the danfo drivers would pay as little attention to the rules as they would to a change in government bond rates in the US.

Likewise, to fight corruption, both factors must be present. The probability of getting caught and the penalty both have to be high. Conversely, for corruption to occur, the probability of getting caught has to be low i.e. an opportunity created by weak internal control systems, insufficient monitoring, and absence of accountability. A potential political crook will perceive an opportunity when she believes she can embezzle with an acceptably small risk of getting caught, or an acceptably low level of punishment if caught.

More salient and insidious is the culture that forms when a low risk of punishment is present. When something goes unpunished long enough, it becomes accepted. In Nigeria, corruption has gone without punishment long enough that many have accepted it as a way of life. Today, people give testimonies in church about how they suddenly can afford to buy a new house in London, with of course no reference or link made to their recent political appointment.

Thus, to make a rule or law effective, both factors must accompany each other – the probability of getting caught when you break the rule and the penalty of getting caught. With one of these missing, the other cannot function. It is not enough to increase the penalties on undesirable actions, the likelihood of such actions getting discovered must also be high. Boko Haram can place a national penalty of beheading on the consumption of fizzy drinks, but the President will comfortably drink his chilled can of Fanta in Aso Villa. Why? Although the penalty is high, the probability of getting caught is close to zero – the law is rendered ineffective.

For policy makers, a larger lesson can be learned from this story. Policy panaceas are myths. Successful policies are rarely the product of one action. Often, several conditions have to be met in order for a policy to be effective. And this applies across social objectives such as tackling rape, attenuating underage marriage, improving education, reducing female mortality rate, to academic objectives like reducing plagiarism, etc.

On this note, let’s introduce a few caveats to the efficacy of these two factors. First, particularly stringent penalties do not always make for the perfect deterrent policies. In fact, the extremity of a threat might affect its credibility. An unreasonably harsh punishment might not be considered credible and lead to even lower levels of obedience. Second, the role of cost of enforcement is integral to the feasibility of the policy. The cost of enforcement dictates the probability of getting caught. Expenses make monitoring costly, which attenuates the chance of successful monitoring. Note also that these factors mainly serve as a basic framework for laws and enforcement-driven policies. Consequently, these factors require that social pressure, moral, civic approaches and others be contextualised to create specific frameworks that account for life’s complexities.

Lastly, policies require constant tweaking to be effective. Required change is hardly binary. Instead, change occurs marginally – for better or for worse. As long as the marginal effect is positive, the actual effect can be significant. Getting passengers to use their seat belt is an entirely different task from ensuring that the drivers are obliged to ensure that the seat belts actually work. However, solving one task means you’ve come a step closer to solving the others – same applies to every other law out there.

Written for and first published at stearsng.com

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