Why Rules Don’t Work

People want rules to create an ideal world.

There is no universally agreed ideal world. In reality, each of us may have our own, and thus there are more than seven billion ideal worlds. It would be an exquisite rule that solved all of those questions.

Rules are necessarily incomplete

All have exceptions. Take something like murder. That seems pretty simple and at one time it probably was. It is an offense to end the life of another. Except if:

  1. It is in self defense
  2. It is sanctioned by the state as a punishment
  3. It is in time of a just war

Rules deal with knowledge and experience when made

No rule can cover all possible conditions that could exist in the future. Even simple rules are hard.  Complex ones are impossible. What does it mean to kill someone? What does it mean to be dead? Which conditions create an offense?

  • Parent has too little control over a teenager who kills someone in an automobile crash.
  • Take someone off life support
  • Defective product
  • Product that is used improperly and the manufacturer warned against it
  • Product that is used improperly and the manufacturer did not warn against it
  • Redefined standards based on experience since the rule was created.
  • “Social justice”

Rules could be more like scientific theories.

“Scientists generally agree that no theory is 100 percent correct. Thus, the real test of knowledge is not truth, but utility. Science gives us power. The more useful that power, the better the science.”

— Yuval Noah Harari

We should apply the same reasoning to rules. Utility more than careful definition and complete wording.

Rules serve a purpose.

Rules outline acceptable behaviour in a given situation within a known culture. They create problems when applied across cultures or apply to unintended conditions. They are seldom of value when applied to unanticipated conditions.

Rules are guidelines with teeth.

The better alternative is to guide behaviour based on simple principles. Ideally that is what parents do.  Effective religions do it too.

  • Be nice to each other
  • Treat each other with respect
  • Help when you can
  • Be grateful

are examples of principle based rules.

Rules should adapt to changing conditions.

The problem is carefully defined rules cannot change because once proclaimed they become a fact. An essence. They certainly don’t change quickly enough to meet the needs of a modern society.

In some ways, rules are like computer software. It is hard to change one aspect of a program without creating unforeseen problems in some other part of the program. Software designers have created object oriented programming to deal with that. You can change a process without effect so long as you don’t change the interface to the process. Inputs remain in the same form, and so do outputs.

Objects make maintenance easier and more likely to happen.

Object oriented programs are principle based. The program is the dominant thought. The objects are the method of executing the required idea. Everything is aimed at achieving the program’s goal. Like society. 

People ignore some rules

Obsolete ones especially. If rules are meant to guide behaviour, what do you do when it takes fifteen years for courts to decide some new meaning should apply. There are tax and contract cases that take this long to resolve.

People do badly when the guidelines themselves provide no guidance.

Every rule should come with a description of the principle it means to define and the circumstances within which it operates.

Perfect rules are imperfect

It is impossible for our idea of rules to keep up.

“The world doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for complete answers before it takes action.”

Daniel Gilbert

Rules are not the solution; principles are.

“Simple, clear, purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, stupid behavior.”

Dee Hock,  founder and former CEO of the Visa credit card association.

Don Shaughnessy arranges life insurance for people who understand the value of a life insured estate. He can be reached at The Protectors Group, a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency in Peterborough, Ontario.  In previous careers, he has been a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business.

Please be in touch if I can help you.  don@moneyfyi.com  866-285-7772

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