Not many people know more about the minds and motivations of criminals than William Julius Wilson. He has written several books on the subject and extensively researched the conditions and factors that motivate people to do the wrong thing. He has measured the influence of race, religion, gender, poverty, childhood trauma – even hair colour – on the likelihood of a person breaking the law.

In a lecture at Harvard, he said, “Every human is motivated to break the law because crime pays physical and/or emotional dividends. The difference between those who commit crimes and those who don’t is opportunity. When a person sees the opportunity to get away with doing the wrong thing, it becomes irrational for them not to”.

Wow. What a scary, yet remarkable observation about human nature. The more you think about it, the more you realise how true this must be. Most people do the right thing only because they are afraid of the consequences of getting caught doing wrong.

And for such people, if they ever found themselves in a situation where they could do the wrong thing with little or no chance of getting caught, then it would make no sense for them not to go ahead and break the law.

To prove his point, William Wilson once conducted an anonymous survey where he asked married people, if they were on holiday on a remote island and there was the chance to have an affair with an attractive stranger without anyone ever knowing, would they? Or would they not? Guess which answer was given by 78.8% of respondents. On the plus side, Wilson’s study clarified the fact that opportunities to get away with wrongdoing were so rare, that criminals will always be a fractional minority compared to law-abiding citizens – well, in America, that is.

Now, this is Ghana. We have beautifully written laws. I once met a lawyer from the Sri Lankan finance and planning ministry, who had come here to study our procurement laws. She told me the Ghanaian constitution is taught in many law schools across Asia! But she couldn’t hide her disappointment at what little use we seemed to have for them in our daily endeavours. Her exact words were, “How can you write such brilliant laws and just allow everyone to live above them?”

My friends, in this country, we only respect laws when obeying them is cheaper than breaking them. We are all motivated to be criminals because it pays to break the law. Just look at how we drive on our roads. We know we can pay our way through if the police stop us, so we break the law with impunity. We mine illegally and allow foreigners to plunder our resources while decimating our environment. People build without permits, connect power illegally, and bribe their way into schools, jobs and contracts. Oh, and 70% of us don’t pay our taxes. Churches break noise pollution laws every Sunday. Businesses under-declare their profits and violate consumer rights daily.

As for our government… where do I begin? How many government vehicles are insured in this country? Government agencies violate so many public procurement laws that the auditor general is constantly dizzy from trying to keep up with them. They burn galamsey excavators, even though the law says the police should keep them until the suspects are found guilty – at which point, the state is to confiscate them. They arrest citizens wrongfully and kill them in custody. They take bribes and kickbacks. They spend state resources to reward the party faithful. And they steal. Bold, bare-faced theft of our valuable and dangerously scarce resources.

This is a terrible self-destructive culture, but we can’t seem to stop it, because it actually pays to break the law. We see little benefit in doing the right thing. Well, if what we need is a reason to be law-abiding, then think of it this way: If you can break the law and get away with it, then so can everyone else. If you can cheat, rob and hurt others without consequence, then others can do it to you too. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Let that sink in.

But the opposite is also true. The more of us obey the law, the more difficult it becomes for the few to break it. So if you want your life, your business and your nation to be a success, then follow the rules. Pay your tax. Obey traffic laws. Protect our environment. And don’t fight illegality with illegality. Our survival as a society depends on the rule of law. None of us is above it, and it’s actually there to protect you.

My name is Kojo Yankson, and the only safe place to shelter on Earth is under the law.

GOOD MORNING, GHANAFO!