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Law, Belief, and Aspiration

Rowell, Arden, Law, Belief, and Aspiration (January 20, 2017). Available at SSRN:

“This project examines the relationships between what the law is, what people believe the law to be, and what people aspire for the law to be. It takes seriously the possibility that people do not know perfectly what the law is, and tests the hypothesis that people’s beliefs about the law may sometimes be better explained by people’s aspirations for what the law should be, rather than what the law actually is. To test this hypothesis, the paper presents the results of a survey asking 869 Americans in six states (California, Florida, Illinois, Texas, Montana, and South Dakota) about ten of their own state laws: what they believed those laws to be, and what they thought those laws should be. The study then compares people’s reported beliefs to their aspirations, as well as to the actual state rules.  Topics included in the study were: the death penalty, abortion waiting periods, handgun waiting periods, misprision of a felony, state income tax, drone deliveries, medical malpractice damage caps, state constitutional right to a clean environment, texting and driving, and at-will employment contract rules.  The study finds that people often do not know the laws under which they live, even when they themselves believe those laws to be important. For example, 1 in 6 participants held inaccurate beliefs about whether their state has a state income tax; 1 in 4 participants held inaccurate beliefs about whether their state has a death penalty; 1 in 3 held inaccurate beliefs about whether their state has a waiting period for purchasing handguns; and fewer than half of participants knew whether they are legally required to report felonies. Somewhat disturbingly, participants were no more likely to know the law when they indicated that the topic was important, although they were more likely to know the law accurately when they felt confident about their knowledge…”

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