When citizens stop complying with the laws, it’s generally a bad thing – laws are there for a reason, and not respecting the laws carries negative consequences – for the people involved, and for social order. But what if, consciously or not, citizens are actually disobeying the laws in order to enact positive changes? A new MIT study found that sometimes, that’s exactly the case.

Image credits: iStock.

The study was conducted in rural China, in an area where scientists expected more than average compliance with the laws. Lily Tsai, an associate professor of political science at MIT suggests that many of the people who don’t follow all the laws are engaging in “constructive noncompliance” — acts that are intended to prompt the government to alter its policies, without actually challenging its status.

Disobeying with the state, especially in a nondemocratic state, can be extremely dangerous, so people generally avoid doing it upfront. But even if this is the case, citizens can still do something subtler. Roughly two-thirds of citizens surveyed think their views are taken into account by officials, while only 15 percent say they would “always follow” a local policy decision when they feel it’s not right.

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“If we’re interested in questions like how stable is [a nondemocratic] regime, it seems important to understand how ordinary people on the ground see it in their own lives, from their own point of view,” Tsai says.

By interviewing the locals, scientists found that people believe that their little subversions and noncompliances are actually a good thing. They feel that the officials will ultimately take these into account and change the laws accordingly.

“They had this belief that if [officials] did see there was sufficient noncompliance, [the officials] would conclude that the citizens were trying to tell them something,” Tsai says. That was not the kind of interaction Tsai thought she would find when studying political attitudes in rural China, but the presence of this attitude became too evident to ignore, she says.

They interviewed roughly 2000 people from 25 different counties. Another interesting conclusion they got was that people generally feel like the government doesn’t understands them.

“The government probably makes unreasonable policies because it doesn’t have a complete understanding of actual conditions,” one respondent said.

Another interesting take-away is that most people don’t feel obligated to follow local policies they don’t consider right. 71% of respondents said they would “definitely” not follow a local policy they found lacking, while only 28 percent would do the same regarding a central government policy.