Conduct and the Law

Published on March 20

The pandemic disrupts two of the most defining behaviors of our relationship with the law. On the one hand, our traditional response poses the law as illegitimate: we sympathize with non-compliers, embrace each other, and condemn the snitch. And on the other hand, distrust, if not fear or defiance, of authority, particularly to law enforcement agencies. In our country’s tradition, both behaviors are intertwined.  Because somewhere a minimum of collective coordination must be sustained, non-compliance with the law and disobedience to perceived (or are indeed) illegitimate authority provides solidarity for those who perceive themselves as (or are) illegitimately persecuted by the law.

Greetings from afar

Anthropology speculates that the origin of many of the greeting gestures was the need to show each other that one was not carrying weapons. Open palm, handshake or forearms, head tilt with hands together on the chest and hug are ways to send the message that, “I come in peace, unarmed, confident in whom I salute, and that I put my life in your hands.” The kiss apparently comes from the need to feed children, having previously chewed the food. If that were the case, kissing is a way to nurture us, a way to make sure we can survive each other. Combined the hug and the kiss are an explosive mixture of assurance: “I don’t carry weapons, touch me and check, I give you my body trusting that you don’t carry weapons either, we hug so we don’t die and we kiss to assure each other’s life.”

To greet yourself from afar is to betray these agreements.

Obeying authority

Authority among us has a long history of illegitimacy. The creation of the national state was done on the restriction of representation and the concentration of power in the Executive and the federal government—not to mention voter fraud, federal interventions and assassinations of political opponents. From 1930 on, coups were the rule, and the judiciary, which had to defend constitutionality and legality, accompanied illegitimate governments as if they were constitutional. Security forces took on torture and arbitrary detention as a natural way to combat crime.

Obeying, in that context, was complicity. It should come as no surprise that the answer was solidarity among individuals, even criminals. Excuses such as “I don’t pay taxes because they money gets stolen by the polititians” is the confession of the one who commits a crime based on the excuse that the authority commits another, in an attempt at justification.

To obey authority is to betray these agreements.

Our constitutional democracy

But in 1983 (long before many countries around the world) things changed. We choose our government without fraud and defend our rights on the street, in the newspapers, in the courts. We have no more excuses: these authorities are ours, the laws are ours. The enormous effort of democratic legitimacy is done. There are no more beatings, no more massive human rights violations.

However, we continue to trust fellow community members more than our own elected officials and government authorities. Perhaps this is because while we are better off, they have done little to increase their legitimacy. We need to be told, before we change our lives, that they are going to do it (have a regulatory agenda), ask us (beyond election moments) what we think of the proposed changes (participatory rule building), to tell us what they expect will happen (ex-ante regulatory evaluation), to tell us what happened after implementing the policies in question and what needs to be maintained, change or improve (ex post regulatory evaluation) and tell us clearly and transparently (clear language and access to information). And to do all that without violating our rights.

Greeting from afar and obeying authority

If we leave this emergency, not needing the embrace and kiss arising from fear and disobedience in response to authoritarianism, we may begin to trust those we choose and to hug and kiss as displays of affection. And then we will be that community that went through painful emergencies, learned from them, and came back into the world better than it was before.


Martín Böhmer

Principal Investigator of the Public Management Program and the Political Institutions Program

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