Does The Law Compromise The Basis Of Society? By Tim Ball

A few years ago the Toronto Globe and Mail ran a contest for the best humorous description of a Canadian. Only one sticks in my mind because it caused me to write to the editors. It said a Canadian is a person who would stop at a stop sign at three in the morning even if nobody were around.

It is mildly amusing, but the implications speak to the fabric of what makes Canada a great nation. This is the knowledge that Canadians can sleep safely knowing that other Canadians are obeying the law, even when nobody is looking. It is part of a larger shift in western society to the notion among young people that they only broke the law if they got caught.

The common denominator of those items is trust. A society is built on trust; once that is gone the society disintegrates. George Macdonald said, “To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.” Lack of trust is one reason people hold poor opinions of politicians. People who are close to politicians know. It is why Henry Kissinger said, “90% of the politicians give the other 10% a bad reputation.” Trust in society is a much wider concept, as the Globe and Mail story infers. It is also a much more profound concept and once weakened deteriorates rapidly because you trust, or you don’t trust. It is an absolute. At best, we treat people with increasing caution once trust is betrayed, no matter how slight.

A former student who became a lawyer told me he took a course in contract law from one of the best contract lawyers in Canada. The opening comment in the first class was, if you sign a contract there is no problem, if you don’t sign a contract there is no problem. We will now have a course in contract law.

Most people view the role of law in society differently than those involved in the law. Most see the law, lawyers and enforcers of the law as intimidating. I heard of a lawyer in England who had a standard letter that he used to exploit this fear. It said in effect; this issue has come to our attention, and if you do not deal with it immediately, we will do things that will astonish you.

Despite the disdain for contracts expressed by the law professor, lawyers urge everyone to have contracts. What this says is that you do not and cannot trust anyone. When that becomes the mindset, the society is in trouble. Also, the young people, who believe they only broke the law if they got caught, know they can hire a lawyer to prove they didn’t break the law.