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Why People Obey the Law: Experimental Evidence from the Provision of Public Goods


  • Lars P. Feld
  • Jean-Robert Tyran


According to economists, severe legal sanctions deter violations of the law. According to legal scholars, people may obey law backed by mild sanctions because of norm-activation. We experimentally investigate the effects of mild and severe legal sanctions in the provision of public goods. The results show that severe sanctions almost perfectly deter free-riding. However, people also obey law backed by mild sanctions if it is accepted in a referendum. We show that voting for mild law induces expectations of cooperation, and that people tend to obey the law if they expect many others to do so.

Suggested Citation

  • Lars P. Feld & Jean-Robert Tyran, 2002. "Why People Obey the Law: Experimental Evidence from the Provision of Public Goods," CESifo Working Paper Series 651, CESifo Group Munich.
  • Handle: RePEc:ces:ceswps:_651

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Marcela Ibáñez, 2010. "Who crops coca and why? The case of Colombian farmers," Courant Research Centre: Poverty, Equity and Growth - Discussion Papers 40, Courant Research Centre PEG.
    2. Jean-Robert Tyran & Lars P. Feld, 2006. "Achieving Compliance when Legal Sanctions are Non-deterrent," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 108(1), pages 135-156, March.
    3. Dawson, Peter & Jones, Philip, 2010. "How are They Spending my Taxes? Tax Compliance and Citizens’ Interest in Politics," Department of Economics Working Papers 21047, University of Bath, Department of Economics.
    4. Werner Gueth & Rupert Sausgruber, 2004. "Tax Morale and Optimal Taxation," Papers on Strategic Interaction 2004-12, Max Planck Institute of Economics, Strategic Interaction Group.
    5. Tyran, Jean-Robert, 2004. "Voting when money and morals conflict: an experimental test of expressive voting," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(7-8), pages 1645-1664, July.
    6. Shahi, Chander & Kant, Shashi, 2007. "An evolutionary game-theoretic approach to the strategies of community members under Joint Forest Management regime," Forest Policy and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 9(7), pages 763-775, April.
    7. Richard McAdams & Janice Nadler, "undated". "A Third Model of Legal Compliance: Testing for Expressive Effects in a Hawk/Dove Game," Yale Law School John M. Olin Center for Studies in Law, Economics, and Public Policy Working Paper Series yale_lepp-1029, Yale Law School John M. Olin Center for Studies in Law, Economics, and Public Policy.
    8. Bohnet, Iris & Cooter, Robert, 2001. "Expressive Law: Framing or Equilibrium Selection?," Berkeley Olin Program in Law & Economics, Working Paper Series qt5h6970h8, Berkeley Olin Program in Law & Economics.
    9. Cooter Robert D & Feldman Michal & Feldman Yuval, 2008. "The Misperception of Norms: The Psychology of Bias and the Economics of Equilibrium," Review of Law & Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 4(3), pages 889-911, December.


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