Social problems: what is law’s role in their solutions?
Amitai Etzioni distinguishes four methods of assessing social problems. In the first "Consensus and Structural Function Approach" he defines a social problem as "...what people think they are.". Thus the law takes no part in defining social problems, this is the role of society, the law only attempts to remedy them. His second preposition is the "Conflict or Alienation Approach" that traces its roots in Marxist theory. Here the failings of a Capitalist Society create sub-sections of underclass citizens that are affected with social problems. Again the law does nothing to define the problem but the "Conflict" theory suggests its resolution of social problems is based on a new system of governing. It can therefore be said that this theory clearly sees the resolutions of social problems in a structured state that, by definition, must require a legal system and suggests all social problems are cured by an adherence to the law, or nearly all. His third model is "Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnomethodology" in which individuals through social interaction define social problems, for example if all my friends are criminals then I do not find it a social problem but if all my friends are not then I find crime a problem. It does not however define how to solve the problem but suggests that education is the key to transforming the definition of social problems. Thus sending a criminal to jail with other criminals would tend to strengthen the interaction and reinforce the idea that crime is acceptable. His final theory is "Neo-Conservativism" in which society is split into the elite and the masses. This is similar to Plato's gold, silver and brass society of the fourth century. Social problems exist because one party fails to fulfil its covenant. It again does not suggest a remedy but we can presume that the elite would use their power to control thereby creating laws to resolve social problems.
Under Etzioni's suggestion of the classification of social problems the law takes no active part in their definition. There is however a problem with this view if we look at certain live examples of constructed social problems. Society conveys its revulsion at murder but the law has defined that motor murder, death by reckless driving, is less socially alienable than shooting somebody. We can place two constructs on this idea, that the law is defining social problems or that the law is simply separating the severity into definable classes. Manning however thinks that solutions are definitive of the problem. He gives for example the idea of women's refuges that went some way to solving the problem of battered wives, and presumably under his theory the law can be a definer and solution to a problem. The reasoning behind this is somewhat problematic however, in that battered wives may have existed before women's refuges thus Manning has missed the first link in the chain of events. In general we can therefore say that the law does not define social problems but one area of the law remains uneasy in this statement, the law of economic interaction. Much legislation and common law directed at this sphere is defining social ideas. Insider trading wasn't classified as a social problem before legislation, unless you speak of a Marxist perspective, so like most legal rules we must annotate the preceding statement. We can say that law has defined social problems that are to protect the "economically stupid". This could be said to divide social problems into individual failings (stupidity) which are defined by the law and societies failings (crime, unemployment) which are not. However if Manning failed to see the first link in the chain of construction then we must not. The law, defining social problems, has itself to be defined. Whether we use any of Etzioni's definitions of the creation of social problems, except perhaps the Marxist view, we can equally use them to define the making of law. So law is defined by society, albeit the elite, which then defines some forms of social problems.
If we are still unsure of the definition then its resolution is naturally problematic. Even before we begin to think of resolving social problems we are faced with questions of formation, information sought, appropriateness and finally outcome. Racism needs to be formulated, is it against people with black skin or can we include Irish people? What information is sought on its existence? Manning suggests that some social problems were being resolved before the intervention of the law, which created a negative resolution or move backwards in the fight to end the problem. This is not as uncommon as it sounds, when new laws on racial harassment were suggested the Newham Racial Monitoring Project said that laws would not only not work but would alienate the black community further. Laws also need to be appropriate, so locking up anti-poll tax protesters turned them into martyrs that fuels the problem of collection of taxes that go to solving social problems. Finally we need to know what solution or outcome we desire. Smith suggests that success is not easily definable. The classic example is that of rape statistics, do increased statistics show more rapes or greater understanding by the police and more willingness to report it?
When Townsend assessed poverty he defined it as relative, that is, those with a standard below that of the majority. If poverty, as a social problem, is to be eradicated then wealth must be shared equally in a socialist state (according to Marxism). This therefore suggests success is relative. Mishra suggest even a socialist state could not solve social problems although he admits his definition is based on present socialist states that, like the U.S.S.R do not totally conform to socialist principles. Even in a perfect socialist society people would still get ill or become old and need the provision of welfare. There are however social problems that are seen as solvable such as unemployment which, in the U.K., was relatively eradicated after World War Two for a time but has returned once again. Wilensky comes up with the theory that there is only a finite resource base, not to be confused with a budget, which is spent according to how society defines which problems are to gain prominence. When unemployment was reaching three million in the eighties and rioting was commonplace in the major cities two billion pounds was pumped into Y.T.S. schemes. If crime becomes top of the agenda then more of this base resource is pumped into solutions to the detriment of, say, health or education. We therefore create a cycle of solutions that presupposes nothing will resolve social problems only cushion their impact. If social problems are unresolved then we must understand why.
Manning moves the debate forward by asking why we perceive the state as the salvation to social problems? Especially if they do not create them. Why do we also continue to support the state that fails consistently to resolve these problems? It could be that we understand that the law cannot resolve social problems totally but the alternatives are worse. Marxism may therefore be a solution but it can be seen as a worsening state of society by Capitalists. The idea then that we fix problems must be substituted with the idea that we stem their effect. Lowry suggests we use three methods to stem, he uses fix, social problems. We can have a consensus that doesn't require legal rules, coercion that does and economic sanctions that punish those outside the norm. All these are weapons in the fight to resolve problems but to say certain problems are only cured by one is incorrect. Murder is seen as a crime in which society has a consensus that it is wrong, it coerces us by defining criminal sanctions and finally punishes us with sanctions of imprisonment if we commit it. The law therefore plays its part in resolving, or stemming, social problems but it can also create them.
We have already seen that Manning thinks the creation of laws is counterproductive. If we look at social security legislation its administration can be its failure. Such decisions as are made by the discretion of officials can become lawless if they deny a claimant unjustly. If all laws were seen as assisting welfare provisions then the acknowledgement of the right to appeal is the acknowledgement of failings within the system. The New Right would suggest that benefits create a climate of dependence. At the other end of the spectrum Marxist theorists like Miliband, although they understand the assistance of the welfare state, claim that it only perpetuates the Capitalist society. It is perhaps those who benefit from the laws on welfare that are best placed to judge them. Any difficulty is only the emergence of a social problem that brings us back to the beginning of the chain of definition and resolution. If we look at some of the practical examples we can see the difficulties are all to apparent. The Child Support Act has been criticised for its universal unpopularity. It is seen as failing single mothers by not enforcing payments strongly enough while they live without the benefit they would normally be entitled to. Fathers are dissatisfied because clean breaks are not recognised, although the Social Security Committee has suggested its reform, but also that payments do not take into account their new life. Everybody is in agreement that the idea is a good one but the legislation has proved close to unworkable.
Finally Rule suggests the semantics of social problems is nothing more than class conflict in which the connotation given to anything outside the norm is that of a "sickness". The law is therefore solving problems that exist only in those who follow normative behaviour and label anything else as deviance. We must conclude that the law does effect social problems but not always to their benefit, in fact sometimes to their detriment. The law is however imperfect in its entirety in that it does not cater for all societies needs, and nor could it. Such a system would require different rules for every personal situation. It attempts this by legislative vagueness so as to fit every conceivable situation. It is also confined by budgetary control in that there is not an endless amount of finance to resolve every problem.