Read this before breaking a law


So you want to break the law. Do something illegal. Maybe you want to do some clever “financial maneuvering”, or cheat on your next test, or just want to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones before everyone else.

You are tempted to be impulsive and emotional while deciding to break a law. Many times you don’t even make a conscious decision. One reason for this could be that we are never really taught about when to break a law and when not to. After all, you are not supposed to do anything illegal. And hence, you don’t have a textbook for it, no “How to” Youtube video, not even a Buzzfeed or Lifehacker article. But fear not, now you have a Medium blog. which is of course, the most legitimate form of literature.

Without further ado, here are the three things to keep in mind before messing with the men in Khakis

1] What is the marginal gain from breaking the law.

You need to know what exactly are you want to gain by breaking the law. How much would you lose if you don’t?

It might be to protect your hard earned money from the taxman. It might be to clear the exam and maintain your “cool guy who also scores well” status. Or it might be about knowing if jack sparrow finally sits on the iron throne or not.

Whatever it might be, you need to be absolutely clear about what you are about to gain. If you can put a quantitative value on it, even better.

2] What is the cost of doing it?

Depending upon what exactly you want to do, this can vary a lot.

It could be multi-step process of finding the right chartered accountant, cleverly transferring cash to a “friend” in Panama and gifting a gold ring to an income tax official. Or, it could be just glancing over on a friend’s answer sheet and maybe giving a treat to a particularly friendly teaching assistant.

The cost of breaking the law can also be negative. Sometimes it is just easier to break a law than to follow it. I mean, it’s just easier to click on a web link, than to go through a long and arduous registration process on Primeflix and still be able to watch the show only on Monday morning.

Again, the more you can quantify the cost, the better.

3] What is the risk?

The risk actually consists of two parts. The punishment if you get caught, and the probability of getting caught itself.

a) The Punishment: In most cases, you will have at least a fair idea of the punishment. It could be zero. I mean, if your father “really” is the chief of police, you can get away with at least some rash driving. 
On the other hand, if the gift to the income tax officer is just “gold plated”, you could end up in jail for the rest of your life.

b) The probability of getting caught: This is by far the most difficult variable to compute. You will easily have the latest statistics and media reports about how many people got caught “helping their friend in Panama” last year, but you will never know for sure how many were trying. Of course, you will think you have a good enough estimate, you will know it “in your gut” but you will probably be off by an order of magnitude.

So, here is the final equation(assuming you can actually assign numerical values to all the quantities)

You should break the law if,

X = G — C -P*N >0

G = The marginal gains
C = Cost of breaking the law
P = Probability of getting caught. 
N = The punishment if you get caught.

Of course, this whole exercise assumes you don’t have an actual ethical conundrum regarding whatever you are about to do.

And of course, I know no one is ever going to use this “framework” before releasing the clutch on a red light or glancing over someone’s answer sheet. But I guess this gives me a license to make “I told you so” face the next time one of my friends is pleading to the traffic police, which is a plus.

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