Penalizing vs Preventing: The Truth about Laws

I’m a bit of a stickler for language, at times. I do not always get it right myself (none do) but I strive for proper usage. With that in mind, let us take a look at the difference between penalizing and preventing behavior.

I’ve read too many articles where this or that or the other law is spoken of in terms of preventing something. However, that is really not the case. We may only prevent some action (illegal or otherwise) by restraint of the actors. That restraint works best when it is self-imposed. Lacking this, external restraints may be applied.

That is not to say that the penalties for a given transgression may not encourage the actor to not break the law. We are all familiar with the horrible little jingle: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Yet, the only take-it-to-the-bank value in the law is in applying the penalty after the crime has been committed. This was true in the time of Moses, and it is true today.

I am reminded of a popular song of a few years ago with the line “Earl walked right through that restraining order.” The restraining order was intended to prevent negative interaction between Earl and his wife. Unfortunately for both of them, it did nothing of the sort.

If laws really did prevent crime, then we wouldn’t need nearly so many of them, would we?