New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



Unenforced laws are controversial. Admonished by some for undermining public respect for the law and violating the separation of powers, symbolic laws are supported by others because they set goals that society may one day achieve. In this article we identify a hidden cost of laws that the state does not intend or lacks resources to enforce. Based on evidence from a controlled field experiment involving public smoking bans, we show that right violations impose psychological costs on right holders even if they are indifferent about the behavior targeted by the law. Our results also shed light on mechanisms of social-enforcement.

Date of Authorship for this Version



March 2016