Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What Crimes Are Crimes?

One thing I always tell my students is that laws exist only in so far as we enforce them -- pretty much everyone breaks the law everyday, simply because we have made so very much illegal. Oh, you protest you did no such thing? You didn't speed? You didn't park illegally for just a moment? You didn't listen to pirated music? You didn't engage is a consensual sex act that is prohibited (and here in MN if it was anything but good ol'missionary, you did)?

Anyway, the point is, not everyone is being arrested, even though we're all breaking the law. This is because we have limited resources and have to choose which of our laws we strenuously enforce and which we more or less ignore. And for a variety of reasons, both historical and contemporary, we tend to enforce those laws broken by the poor and ignore those laws broken by the wealthy.

For example, employers are legally required to provide a safe workforce for their employees and have a bevy of safety laws they are supposed to follow. One really obvious and necessary law is that they must provide proof of the safety of the workplace to any employee who asks, so the employee can decide if they'd like to work there or find somewhere else to work that doesn't endanger their lives.

But what happens if a lowly worker dares to ask to see a safety report? Well, if you're a window washer in Minneapolis, it means you get locked out of your job. That's right, locked out of your job as someone who dangles thirty stories above the ground on some flimsy ropes just for asking if the ropes will hold you up or let you fall to your death like 3 of your coworkers did in the past year.

And yet, this employer is not facing any legal sanctions, and their executives will definitely not be dragged out of their house at gun point in the middle of the night. Even though they are blatantly and publicly breaking multiple laws. As such, even though there are all sorts of laws about workplace safety, those laws don't exist in reality because they are rarely (if ever) enforced.

Yet, these people aren't even the biggest criminals in the news. A group of researchers at Brook Haven National Laboratory have broken the laws of physics. Though of course those laws are enforced by God, so maybe they will actually be punished...

No comments: