Thursday, March 23, 2023

Why Do People Not Comply with the Law in Latin America?

Medellin, Colombia. Image for illustrative purposes

Q24N – There is an abysmal difference in people’s attitude before the law. For example, people in Germany and in the United States usually feel almost a reverential respect toward it, but people in Latin America have very low regard for it.

Why does that happen?

The opposing positions described above derive from the fact that the law is only an instrument, which can be used correctly or incorrectly.

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In the first case, the law will be the materialization of certain rules of right conduct, general and abstract, rooted in the customs of that community. In the second, it will be somewhat artificial, such as an orthopedic apparatus, approved with the purpose of arbitrarily benefiting certain social groups, especially the ruling people.

The influence of laws on the prosperity or misery of a particular country has been known for centuries. At first to make a systematic study of this factor — based on empirical evidence — was Montesquieu. The French philosopher traveled for three years throughout several European countries (Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Holland and England), analyzing their customs, habits, prevailing ideas and laws.

Many of the conclusions to which he arrived were reflected in his famous work “The Spirit of the Laws.” In this book, Montesquieu states that the rules that determine human behavior are not permanent or absolute; they emerge and evolve according to the historical or cultural context, government and character of a particular society.

Montesquieu concluded that the best form of government is a republican one, in which the three branches of the state are independent, and control each other. To put it in other words, “let power control power.” That is the most effective way to prevent despotism. Moreover, the goodness of the republic rests on the virtue of citizenship, which causes equality and freedom to be its predominant traits.

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If a Latin American is told that the law is the guarantee of his freedom, he will burst out laughing.

According to Frédéric Bastiat, “the law is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense” that emanates from natural law.

Each of us is empowered by nature to “defend his person, his liberty and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two.”

In Latin America, however, the law annihilated “the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect … placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime.”

But as we pointed out earlier, the legal norm is only an instrument that the authorities operate. Consequently, they are directly responsible for the corruption of the law.

An example of the aforementioned is the bill the Uruguayan parliament is currently studying. The Executive Branch pushed for its approval before the end of 2016. It states that financial institutions must inform the treasury of the balances and rents credited in residents and foreigners’ bank accounts. It also increases taxes on companies in tax havens.

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It establishes the obligation of financial institutions (banks, trusts, investment funds, among others) to report annually to the Directorate-General of Taxation (DGI), “the balance or value of the accounts at the end of the calendar year and its annual average during the referred year” of its clients, both residents and non-residents.

In future regulation, the government will define the minimum amount from which the tax report will be mandatory, but it is already expected to be very low.

President of the Central Bank Mario Bergara, cynically proclaimed that this norm constitutes “a near-death blow” to banking secrecy. That is, the hierarch boasts of weakening the rights to privacy, freedom and to enjoy one’s property without being accountable to anybody.

It reverts the weight of the evidence, and violates a republican legal principle: “Every person is innocent until proven guilty.”

The worst of all is that even the right to life is at stake, because as Bastiat pointed out, freedom and property, and their intrinsic relationship, are indispensable to preserve it.

Laws of this nature are harmful because when the norm becomes an instrument of plunder, it erases from people’s conscience the distinction between what is just and unjust. With regard to this matter, Bastiat emphasizes that the existence of a society presupposes respect for laws. The only thing that guarantees that behavior is that the laws are respectable.

However, “when law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.”

Therefore, many of Latin America’s ills originate from the fact that, throughout history, our leaders have frequently passed laws that no one can respect.

Article originally appeared on

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