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Why Do People Break the Law?

As an accounting professional you have come across people who have attempted to bend the rules or do something illegal.  There are penalties.  Why do people do it?

  • Smartest person in the room:  They feel the pool of potential rule breakers is so huge, the chances of getting caught are minimal.  This makes taking the risk worthwhile.  Wall Street traders who break the law are famous for making decisions based on the risk/reward ratio, one of the reasons why few have ever pleaded guilty or been convicted.

    RealityTechnology has changed the game.  EZ Pass may get you through tolls quicker, but it can track your movements too.  Your iPad has an app to find your iPhone.  Think you are the only person watching?

  • A little cheating is expected:  Nobody is completely honest.  People jaywalk.  Drivers run red lights in the middle of the night if there’s no traffic.  Tell me you have never driven 10 or 15 miles over the speed limit on a straight road on a sunny day. 

    RealityNot everyone gets caught, but someone does.  The hosts on a NJ radio talk station described being pulled over for speeding as a “reverse lottery” where many people are doing it alongside you, but only one car gets singled out and pulled over.  “What about all those other guys?” is not a defense.

  • I read it on the Internet (so it must be true):  There’s as spectrum of news sources online, ranging from mainstream media with amble research resources and fact checkers to blogs and thinly disguised advertising. 

    Reality:  Many people assume stories they read in the media are vetted for accuracy beforehand.  They are not.  Advice can be flawed, as this example “To defend your home, blast your shotgun through the front door,” shows.

  • A friend did it.  It worked:  They tried taking unusual deductions.  They said it worked.  Are they telling you the whole story? 

    Reality:  The issue isn’t “They haven’t been caught.”  The issue is “They haven’t been caught YET.”  TurboTax reports “Hiring an Arsonist to Burn Down Your Business Isn’t Tax Deductible.”

  • These laws don’t apply to me:  Leona Helmsley famously said: “Only the little people pay taxes.”  She was listed by Time as one of the top ten tax dodgers.  Some people feel laws are right and proper when they support issues important to them, but they are stupid laws when they don’t agree with them.  Because they consider the law stupid, they rationalize they don’t need to comply.

    Reality:  Until enough people complain and a law is changed, it’s still in force.

  • I didn’t know about the law:  There are way too many laws out there.  Stories occasionally appear about weird state laws:  “In Virginia, having any kind of sex if you are not married is a class four misdemeanor.”

    Reality:  Ignorance is not an excuse.

  • If I get caught, it’s only a first offense: The rationale is you will probably be let off with a warning.  It might be true, but it’s probably at the discretion of the judge or arresting officer.  “Honest, officer.  I didn’t see the 65 mph sign.  You see, this car has such a smooth ride, I didn’t even realize I was doing 85.”

    Reality:  You’ve seen this on TV.  When the police arrest someone, they try to find multiple laws you have broken.  This compounds the problem.

  • It’s a minor infraction:  They aren’t going to ticket me for jaywalking or littering.  The police have much bigger things to worry about like drug dealers and terrorists. 

    Reality:  When Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York the police, aggressive policing of lower level crimes, or the “broken windows” approach was considered a major factor in reducing the crime rate by 56%.  Your small infraction is still considered “breaking the law.”

  • Didn’t consider spouse:  US Customs officers have a pretty good idea what to look for when people arrive from certain destinations.  A couple we know was returning from the Caribbean.  They were asked:  “Did you buy anything?”  One of them responded: “I bought some cigars.”  When asked “What kind?” their spouse indignantly added:  “Havanas, of course.”

    Reality:  You may want to risk fines or jail.  Don’t assume others agree.

People usually break the law because they feel they can get away with it.  As CS Lewis said, "Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”