Limitations of Law in Creating Social Change


To most people law is imposed externally in an almost coercive way. Today people are characterized by a “crisis of confidence” and alienation from social institutions because of uncontrollable economic conditions. Therefore, law is hardly an expression of their will. Few people participate in the formulation of laws and legislation. One of limitations of law as an instrument of social change is the possibility of prevailing conflict of interest. Other limitations related to the efficacy of law in social change include divergent views on law and the prevailing morality and values. The scarcity of resources causes conflicting interests. Decades ago, Karl Marx and Max Weber said that many laws are created to protect special economic interests. This is because economic interests are strong factors influencing the creation of laws. Weber recognized that besides economic interests law protects other interests too such as personal security, personal honor, and it guarantees political, ecclesiastical, and other positions of authority and social preeminence. Weber emphasizes two points:

  1. Conflict of interests provide the base for the formation of laws that bring change; so the stratification of society and the preferences of those who promulgate the changes determine the role of laws in social change.
  2. Law as an instrument of social change can be seen as the organization of power and processes that protect special interests in society and result in social change.

For powerful and influential people “the law in effect structures the power relationships in a society, maintains the //status quo//and protects various //strata//against each other”. Many legislative enactments, administrative rulings, and judicial decisions reflect the power configurations in society. Even members of legal professions serve to unify the power elite by serving as “professional go-betweens” for principal political, corporate and other interest groups.
Interestingly, a lot of people who are coerced or oppressed by the laws imposed by a ruling minority are unaware of their oppression. They may even strongly support the existing legal system because the ruling party has used its power to confuse them as if they are protecting their true interests. However, a distinction should be made between what people claim as their interests and what their “true” interests are. There are many examples when people are organized to protect what they conceive as their interests. Blacks have been instrumental in the passage of many civil rights laws. Farmers have affected laws dealing with migrant workers, farm subsidies, importation of food items, etc. so it is the division of society into the “powerful” and “powerless” that simple? The mechanisms of change through law include large segments of the population. Even in democratic countries, the large-scale participation of citizens in social change is not feasible; however, the lack of participation doesn’t mean lack of representation.