Has the Government Been Undermining Social Norms by Imposing Inconvenient Rules It Cannot Enforce?

Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has introduced a plethora of rules concerning when we can and cannot leave our homes.

Anyone with symptoms is meant to self-isolate at home. Ditto for anyone who tests positive or who comes into contact with someone who’s tested positive. People travelling to Britain from overseas must self-isolate too (except football VIPs). And during the lockdown last year, we weren’t supposed to leave our homes for any reason other than work, exercise or food shopping.

Needless to say, these rules have made life difficult for a lot of people – particularly those who travel regularly, or who manage a small business. The current ‘pingdemic’ is wreaking havoc on Britain’s economy, as service-providers struggle to meet demand for lack of staff.

While asking symptomatic people to self-isolate arguably makes sense, it’s less clear whether all the other rules and regulations can be justified. In a 2019 report on pandemic influenza, the WHO recommended things such as ventilation of indoor spaces and isolation of symptomatic individuals. However, it classified “quarantine of exposed individuals” as “not recommended in any circumstances”.

Aside from the considerable inconvenience they cause, there’s another potential downside of the lockdown rules. Because they’re so difficult to enforce, large numbers of people are simply ignoring them. And might this, in turn, be undermining general norms of law-abidingness?

A major study published in The BMJ back in March found that only 43% of symptomatic people fully adhered to self-isolation – and that was based on data from last year, when the disease was seen as much more of a threat. It’s likely that a similar or even lower percentage of people have been complying with all the other rules.

Why does this matter? Studies have shown that when people observe norms being violated, they become more likely to violate norms themselves, leading to the gradual erosion of norm compliance. For example, a 2008 paper found that people were more likely to litter when there was graffiti next to a “No graffiti” sign than when there were no obvious signs of norm violation.

Regarding the pandemic itself, there’s already evidence that the scandal surrounding Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle had a negative effect on adherence to lockdown rules. People reasoned, “If he’s not following the rules, then why should I?”

But the effect might be even more general than that. After witnessing so many examples of lockdown violations over the past year and a half, might people have become more likely to break other rules in society as well? I’m not aware of any evidence of this at the present time, but it doesn’t seem at all implausible.

Of course, one might say: even if the lockdown rules have slightly undermined law-abidingness, they were worth it to control the epidemic. Given the lack of evidence on stay-at-home orders, I am rather doubtful of this. But at the very least, there’s yet another potential cost of lockdown for us to consider.