Attorney Robert Zumwalt at the Mises Institute writes about laws as an attempt to control individual choices, morals, and actions in Law, Praxeology, and Unintended Moral Decay. An excerpt is below, but it is worth checking out the article for context.
…Devlin argued, in his 1959 lecture, “The Enforcement of Morals,” that systems of laws are necessary to preserve a society’s “common morality,” which he believed was necessary to prevent the society’s “disintegration.” To him, this concern justified passage of legislation regulating the conduct of individuals’ lives. In his view, societies are justified in enforcing a common morality through legislation because this common morality is necessary for their own preservation.
To be fair, there is something admirable in Devlin’s analysis of the function of a common morality within society:
For society is not something that is kept together physically; it is held by the invisible bonds of common thought. If the bonds were too far relaxed, the members would drift apart. A common morality is part of the bondage. The bondage is part of the price of society; and mankind, which needs society, must pay its price.
However, Devlin did not stop at this basic observation that a natural means by which societies remain bonded is through a shared morality. He proposes that this need for a common morality justifies the imposition of legislation regulating individual conduct:
If society has the right to make a judgement and has it on the basis that a recognized morality is as necessary to society as, say, a recognized government, then society may use the law to preserve morality in the same way as it uses it to safeguard anything else that is essential to its existence. If therefore the first proposition is securely established with all its implications, prima facie society has the right to legislate against immorality as such.
There is an unspoken assumption at work here, however, which is that legislation against immorality does in fact strengthen moral bonds within societies. Unlike purely theoretical legal systems confined to academic literature, actual legal systems are subject to the reality that the societies they govern are composed of individuals who act to satisfy their own chosen ends. Viewed from this praxeological perspective, a strong case can be made that vigorous legislation is at least as likely to degrade social morals as it is to improve them.
Proponents of theories like legal moralism seem to assume as a starting point that men can be made to follow certain moral patterns just because the law directs them to. But laws do not change the ends men wish to achieve, they only impede men from achieving them. Thus, if the law forbids the sale of alcohol on Sundays, the result for some men will not be that they drink less of it, but that they will buy more of it on Saturdays and Mondays.
If hard liquor is outlawed, they will drink more beer or wine. If alcohol is prohibited altogether, some will evade legal enforcement. And those who do end up drinking less will not do so because the law has awakened in them a realization of the immorality of alcohol. They will do so only because they prefer to avoid punishment.
Therefore, the idea that legislation of moral behavior will induce a desired moral character in society ignores that individual men do not act for the purpose of fulfilling the “higher principles” for which the state passes its laws…
This is not an argument against societies pursuing shared moral values, nor necessarily against societies enacting laws that reflect moral values already universally agreed upon. But it is evident that moral values come from the individuals who make up a society, not from the edicts that legislators hand down from above. This brief praxeological exercise suggests that the meticulous legislation of modern regulatory states may in fact engender moral decay, as cynical compliance with bare law comes to replace respect for a shared morality as the overriding characteristic of society.