A Theory of Unenforced Laws


We consider a government’s interrelated decisions of enacting laws prohibiting harmful behavior and choosing how aggressively to enforce those laws. There are three broad policies available to the government in this regard: not prohibiting the act at all, enacting a law and enforcing it, and enacting a law and not enforcing it. When enactment is costly and a fraction of the population reflexively complies with the law once its enactment has been announced (reflecting an expressive function of law), all three policies may be optimal, depending on the severity of the harm from the act and the fraction of reflexive compliers.