How Rules Work

“We have done enough.  We can rest for a while until some new problem comes along.”  Said no politician ever.  They have a need to be seen to be doing something, which in their world means making more rules and stimulating some action or other.  The things they focus on become increasingly trivial.

We supply the need for their behaviour and we should think that through before going further.

Some rules make sense in that they codify some societal belief.  Something that makes society easier to operate.  Murder?  No!  Cheating?  Not allowed.  Assault.  Bad idea.  When people know what the rules are and they know that justice is swift and fair, there are fewer problems.

But what happens when rules are unclear, narrow, unenforced or even unneeded?

Notice that rule making and enforcement has a price.  The resources used for that cannot repair any other wrong.  Even governments get to spend money just once.  Priority please.

Notice that rule making has a built in assumption that people will comply.  If there are few people who perform some unwanted act, and they will do so after the rule is created because enforcement is harder than policy and therefore avoided, we have a problem.  The cost falls on the people who would not have done whatever it is in the first place.  Locks keep out honest people.

Rules that exist but are not enforced should not be an excuse to create more rules to deal with the same subject.  But they are.

All rules distort society in some way.  It is usually more than the price. If a city spends money to create bike lanes and traffic calming, my price as a careful driver goes up by my share of what that costs to build and maintain.  I also pay in time for slower commutes and society pays with more emissions because stop and start uses more fuel than does driving at a constant higher speed.

Some distortions require more rules to deal with the unintended consequences of the first one.   A fantastic deal for bureaucracies.  Business makes business.  It is like the Mafia owned trucking companies driving with overloaded trailers and then having the roads repaired by Mafia owned construction companies.

Most rules serve a ridiculous notion of fairness.  There is no perfectly fair.  You can come close for very little money and effort, but you cannot reach perfect for an infinite amount of time, trouble and money.  Governments should know when they have done enough.

We are to blame.  We encourage governments to solve our tiny problems.  They gather that need up to justify their value.  Stop encouraging governments to solve problems that are more personal preference issues than they are problems. The war on whatever is just rhetoric to claim importance and money.  Stop participating in the nonsense.

You get more of what you encourage, so encourage less.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.


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