Could we live without laws?

Laws - do we need them if we want to live with other people?

There are a lot of rules in life. The law in the UK says that you have to go to school, you have to wear a seatbelt when you get in the car and you can’t steal someone else’s phone just because it’s better than yours. But do we really need all those rules? Or could there be a better way to live?


Some rules we have are just that - rules. Like the kind you get at school, or in your sports team. But some rules are laws - like not being able to steal from a shop, or having to pay taxes, or needing to have car insurance if you drive a car. Most laws apply to a whole country, not just one organisation or small group of people, and you get a much bigger punishment if you break them - like paying a huge fine or even going to prison.

But since laws are a type of rule, let’s first have a look at the behaviour of humans and how we interact when we’re together, to see whether we need any kind of rules or not. Then we can go on to think about whether we need laws, the biggest rules we have.

Do humans need rules when they hang out together?

Humans can be pretty complicated creatures - we’ve all got very different personalities, different ideas of what’s good or bad and different things we like and enjoy doing. But that’s ok - difference can be good. You might like hot dogs while your friend prefers hamburgers, or perhaps you enjoy science-fiction films but your bestie loves to watch comedies. No harm done - you can each enjoy the things you like.

But what if your friend enjoyed punching people? Or thought your watch was nicer than theirs and just took it? Despite your friend thinking those things are ok, you probably wouldn’t agree - and if there were no rules then there would be nothing to stop them from punching you or stealing your stuff. And nothing to make sure they got punished if they did go ahead and do those things.

Even language is a type of rule. We all agree that the word ‘chair’ means something you sit on. If you suddenly decided that you wanted to use the word ‘jibbertyflibbert’ instead of ‘chair’, things would get confusing - no one would know what you meant! Or imagine if you asked someone for a pen and they gave you a mouse, or you asked for toast at breakfast and your mum handed you a garden spade… We all have to agree on what we mean when we say the words ‘pen’ and ‘toast’, or else it would be pretty hard to understand each other and live life together. And when we all agree to something and live by it, that’s a kind of rule.

So we might hate to admit it, but life would be pretty hard without any rules at all. Rules are designed to ensure fairness, understanding, safety and respect - and without them, things could get chaotic and dangerous. Ultimately, unless you want to live in a cave by yourself, it’s pretty impossible not to have any rules at all.

Who makes the rules?

But even if we admit that we need some rules, does that mean those rules have to come in the form of laws? Like we saw earlier, laws are rules that are decided by a government, which everyone in the country has to follow and that there are significant punishments for breaking. And that’s the standard way that most humans function - the world is divided up into countries and they each have their own government and set of laws.

But just because it’s the way things are, doesn't mean it’s the way things have to be - so is our current system the best way for humans to live together?

For as long as there have been governments and laws, there have been people who have wondered if things really had to be this way. This group of people are called ‘anarchists’, a name which comes from the Greek word 'anarkhos' meaning ‘without authority’, and they’ve been around for quite awhile in various different forms.

Anarchists believe that all people should be free. But when we have laws and people ruling over us, like the government, then we’re not free - laws control our behaviour because we have to follow them.

So an ideal anarchist society would be more community-based - power would be shared out rather than all in one central government, and smaller groups of people would make decisions and rules for themselves. There would still be some basic agreements about what was right or wrong - it wouldn’t suddenly become ok to steal things or murder people - but there wouldn’t be any actual laws. And people would choose to follow those rules instead of being forced to. It would be up to each person to take responsibility for their own actions, rather than up to a government to make laws to control people’s actions.

Anarchists aren’t against being organised or having some people who can lead and guide others. But a key thing in making sense of anarchy is to understand the difference between a ruler and a leader. Anyone can choose to follow someone else, making that person their ‘leader’ - but the moment a person forces someone else to follow him or her, the person doing the forcing becomes a ‘ruler’. And then people have no choice but to follow the laws that they make.

So anarchists don’t think we can live without rules entirely - they just think we should have less of them and that they should be made more fairly. They think we can rely on people’s individual sense of duty and their natural understanding of what’s wrong or right to uphold a few rules, rather than forcing people to follow a long list of laws.

A world without law - good or bad?

So what do you think of those ideas? Do you agree that we need at least some rules to manage humans living together, or do you think we could cope without? Do you think people could be trusted to make good decisions for themselves if there were only social rules but no government to make and enforce proper laws?

And whether you think we should have just a few rules or a whole bunch of laws, take a minute to ponder on how you think your chosen system would work… Who would make the rules or laws? How many would there be and what kind of things would they be about? Should there be any sort of punishment if you break them? Should there be rules for the whole world, or just for whole countries, or can each community decide their rules for themselves?

How did we end up with laws in the first place?

As you think about whether we could live without laws, take a minute to find out where they came from. Understanding the very first laws that were created and why will help you understand how our legal system came to be like it is. But will that change your mind about whether or not we still need laws? Watch and see…

Did you know that it’s actually against the law to queue-jump when you’re buying tickets for the London Underground?!

Did you know that it’s actually against the law to queue-jump when you’re buying tickets for the London Underground?!

Singalong law-making!

How do laws get made in the UK? Who creates them and who has to agree to them? Does old Queenie get a say or is it just the politicians? This catchy tune will help you make sense of it all...


Guess the anarchist

Changing the rules: alternative laws in literature

Take a look at these books to see how various authors have imagined the world if we had a very different set of laws - or even no laws at all…

  1. Utopia
    1. This book was published by Thomas More in 1516, smack in the middle of King Henry VIII’s reign and the troubles of the Reformation - a massive fight between Protestants and Catholics, which brought lots of social and political problems. So in response to the troubles around him, More created a whole new idea for how a society could function - the perfect (and fake) island of Utopia. In Utopia there wasn’t a central government like there was in England - instead, each city was broken down into smaller communities, each with their own set of leaders, so power was shared. Every citizen had to work, so there was no unemployment. There was also no poverty - all goods were stored in big warehouses and people could just request what they needed. There were a few different religions on the island, but they were all very tolerant of each other, and the Utopians were also very anti-war. Sounds pretty idyllic. But what do you think - could More’s dream society really work in real life?
  2. Lord of the Flies
    1. Published by William Golding in 1954, this book paints a picture of what could happen if people didn’t have any laws at all. In the middle of a fictional war, a British plane crashes on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean leaving only a small group of young boys alive. They’re miles away from home, with no grown-ups and no rules. But interestingly one of the first things they do is pick someone - a boy called Ralph - to be their leader, and then they invent some rules. They’re pretty simple - to have fun, to survive and to always keep a smoke signal going so they can be rescued - but their first instinct is still to make sure there’s some kind of order. Yet slowly this order turns to chaos as their rules get broken - they become lazy and forget to keep the smoke signal going, and there’s a power struggle between Ralph and another boy called Jack which results in two different ‘tribes’. They start to fight each other and by the end of their time on the island two of the boys have been brutally murdered. Golding’s ultimate point seems to be that if you don’t give people clear rules and laws, then there’s nothing to stop their desire for power - but do you agree?
  3. The Program 
    1. This 2013 novel by Suzanne Young imagines a fictional world where teen suicide is at an all-time high - it’s killing one in three young people. So the government have come up with a system of treatment where any teenagers showing signs of depression are forced to enter The Program. There they’re given medication that erases big chunks of their memory, to get rid of the memories ‘infected’ with the depression and stop them from harming themselves. But the teenagers are all terrified of The Program - although everyone who’s been through it comes home without their depression, they’re also without their memories. They’re like a blank slate, with no real identity or sense of their past. Following the story of one of those struggling teens, 17-year-old Sloane, the book raises the question of whether it’s ever a good idea to create laws and rules that try to regulate people’s emotions - or whether they’re impossible to control. It also shows how some laws are created with good intentions and are designed to help people, but in the end, they just end up making things worse. Can you think of any real-life laws that do that today?
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale
    1. Margaret Atwood wrote this novel in the 1980s, and it tells the story of a fictional future where the US government has been overthrown by a religious military group called the Sons of Jacob. They don’t like the way things are being run, so they establish a severe set of Bible-based laws, which means that people live very restricted lives - women in particular. The Sons of Jacob believe that women are not as smart or valuable as men and so they’re not allowed to vote, to have any of their own money, have a job, or even read. In fact, they’re treated as men’s property and every healthy young woman (called ‘a handmaid’) is assigned to a man to have his children. The book is told from the perspective of one of the handmaids, Offred, as she tries to cope with and eventually escape this scary regime. Although the country in Atwood's book might seem extreme, there are some countries today where the law is very different for men and women - do you think that’s a good or bad thing for society?
  5. The Republic
    1. Written by the philosopher Plato around 380 BC, this book explores what it would look like for a society to be built entirely around the idea of justice - and what laws would be needed to bring that about. It emerges that Plato’s ideal society isn’t ruled by a dictator or a government, but instead by a philosopher (big surprise!). Then everyone else is split into three classes of people - the rulers (who run the show), the guardians (who are like the army or police) and the producers (who do all the work - growing food, making clothes, etc). And everyone in this society knows their place and just gets on with doing the job they’ve been given. Plato was using the book to criticise the government and laws of his day - he thought that many politicians claimed to be bringing justice to the people of their country, but in fact, they didn’t even really understand what justice was. And actually, they often acted very unjustly! Can you think of any examples of laws and systems of government that are unjust in the world today?
  6. Ecotopia
    1. Set in 1999 (which was still the future when the book was written by Ernest Callenbach, in the 1970s) this story tells us about a small country called Ecotopia, which had previously decided to break away from the US as the people were sick of mainstream society's obsession with possessions and their terrible treatment of the environment. The novel consists of diary entries and reports of journalist, William Weston who is the first American mainstream media reporter to investigate Ecotopia. He discovers that the main focus of Ecotopia’s laws is about governing the uses of technology, fuels and chemicals that might damage the planet. Their government is quite small and mostly led by women, and it tries to share out its power with local community leaders so that the authority isn’t all in one place. And most of the country’s businesses aren’t controlled by big bosses - they’re owned by the employees themselves and run in a very fair and equal way. Ecotopians are also less morally strict - so there isn’t really any such thing as marriage and people’s relationships are much more open and unrestricted, and also drugs are legal. So it certainly sounds like Ecotopians are given a lot of freedom (which could be fun), and we know we need to take good care of our environment - but do these laws sound like a good or bad way to make that happen?

“We shouldn’t bother with a government”

In a short chat with BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman, the comedian Russell Brand reveals that he’s never voted. And that he thinks our system of government and our laws are not working very well - so we should try something different. Do you agree with him?

3 reasons anarchists think fewer laws = fewer crimes

  1. The laws create the crimes
    1. Although the government is supposed to play a key part in controlling crime, anarchists generally believe that the government actually causes a lot of it! They think that most legal systems are unfair and look after rich and educated people much better than they protect poorer, uneducated people. This in mind, it seems only natural that those struggling people end up acting out and committing crimes. Interestingly, there’s quite a bit of evidence to back this up - a 2002 study by economists at the World Bank found that countries with a lot of financial inequality (where there’s a huge gap between how much money the richest people have and how little money the poorest people have) had the highest crime rates. For example, countries like El Salvador, Jamaica and South Africa, which have a lot of social inequality, also have some of the highest murder rates in the world - but countries like Iceland, Norway and Singapore, where society is more equal, have some of the lowest murder rates in the world. And since anarchists believe that the government (and the laws they make) are the ones who make society unequal, they figure that if we get rid of them then we’d have less crime. 
  2. Law-makers are often law-breakers
    1. Anarchists also think that not only are the government responsible for creating an environment that causes other people to commit crimes, but they themselves are often criminals. They have so much power, it makes them think they can do anything they want - they think they’re above the law, even though they’re a part of the government that made it. Their crimes might not be smashing a store window to steal a TV - but politicians are often in trouble for things like stealing money from government funds (known as embezzlement) or failing to pay their taxes. Just think about the 2008-9 MP expenses scandal in the UK, where lots of politicians were found to have been lying and claiming much more money than they should have been. Or the many times Ugandan government officials have been accused of taking bribes from criminals instead of reporting them and taking them to jail.
  3. If people help shape the law, they’ll want to follow it
    1. Anarchists believe that if there wasn’t a government, then no one person or group of people would have all the power - and decisions about laws and rules could be made by whole groups of people and be relevant to the community where they were created. And if we were all equally involved in making the rules, then we’d probably be more likely to follow them - we’d better understand why they were relevant to our lives and we’d actually want to live by them.