Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Following the rules

People are very fond of rule systems, and with good reason. We live together in large groups by constructing rule systems that tell us what we should and should not do, which gives us guidance and makes other people’s behavior more predictable. Chaos is only fun in a sheltered environment. So we have layers of laws and regulations, social mores and religious practices, and our own senses of ethics and morality. These are all useful, and they can be viewed as a vast interlocking and overlapping set of rules.

Personally, I want rules to be clear and consistent, learnable, predictable, fair, and justified by reasonable principles. (Other people have other priorities, and friends say that’s what makes the world interesting and fun. Normally I agree, though sometimes it also makes the world frustrating and incomprehensible.) I enjoy learning rule systems, and the only common thread among the academic areas of study that I’ve most enjoyed was that they could all be described as formal systems: math, chemistry, theoretical linguistics, computer science, constitutional law, logic. Much of my work in publishing (though not all) is also related to formal systems, though most often in applied modes: contracts and intellectual property law, style sheets, proofreading, taxes, and navigating the postal service.

One of the hardest lessons I had to learn is that understanding the formal rule system is not enough, because there is frequently no way to force people or organizations to follow even their own rules. Formal rule systems, of course, do not always correspond to actual practice. In some cases, such as traffic rules, it’s obvious that the rules are frequently violated without consequence. But we’re also under the impression that there is a hierarchy of traffic cops and traffic courts that tries to correctly apply the traffic rule system when you are pulled over. In many arenas, that simply doesn’t happen. Intellectual property law is a fascinating rule system, but in practice most issues are either unresolved (as in the case of most copying regardless of whether it is fair use) or resolved in favor of the party with the deeper pockets regardless of merit (Disney/RIAA wins). Fair use is a nice idea, but you, as an individual, will never be able to enforce your fair use rights in any practical or reliable way. The postal service has remarkably clear mail manuals, but when a counter clerk or other postal employee wants to do something else, your mail is under their control. The DMM is only authoritative if the postal employee is willing to defer to it. The Constitution won’t save you from wrongful arrest or prosecution, and the niceties of due process are rarely observed because the court system is designed to intimidate well over 99% of defendants into taking a plea. In common consumer transactions, your only real recourse in the case of a problem is through a chargeback on your credit card, and that only works because the credit card industry values consumers more than businesses. It’s not about right and wrong (as defined by the rules). You may be interested in following the rules, but unless the other party in a dispute is also interested in following the rules, resolution of the dispute falls to the party with control. And many people and organizations aren’t interested in following the rules. This isn’t new, but it’s not something that I learned in school.

A group of people and organizations voluntarily following a shared set of rules seems like a good working definition of a community. A police state may make everyone follow a shared set of rules, but it’s not a community because it’s not voluntary. Our society is composed of many communities, and obviously needs some enforcement mechanisms if it is going to function smoothly. We also learn from interacting with people who have different sets of rules. But in my day-to-day life, I most value the time I spend within a community.


Vardibidian said...

A group of people and organizations voluntarily following a shared set of rules seems like a good working definition of a community.

I like this. I think it's important to be aware how precarious that agreement is, but simultaneously, it's good for everyone to act as if most of the rules are natural in some sense.

On another note, one of the things that is frustrating about public policy is that when rules are rigidly applied without giving the public official authority to use her judgement, it's a lot of extra work and inefficient and annoying. But when the public official does have lattitude, it usually leads quickly to corruption, racial/religious/ethnic bias and the extra benefit of the already advantaged. The only conceivable way to give that kind of lattitude and try to avoid the worst of the effects is to have an incredibly selective hiring process and incredibly rigorous training, and even in that best-case scenario, you can wind up with a political problem, as when judges take heat for being insufficiently strict in their sentencing.


Jed said...

I like this entry, but I'm not sure I agree about definition of community.

I'm very rulebound, and it's been a source of great frustration to me to learn, over many years, that most people just don't care that much about rules. And those who do, other than geeks and lawyers and people on the autistic spectrum, usually care much more about the general idea of the rules than the specific details.

I think that communities often share the illusion of believing in and following the same rules, or at least sharing a worldview and values. But I think in many or most cases, if you start exploring the details of those worldviews and values, you find that everyone is different, one to another: different interpretations, different understandings, different ideas of which rules are ok to violate & by how much, etc.

Which, as you noted, has pluses and minuses.

Michael said...

Of course there is going to be individual variation in how rules are understood, ranked, or followed, whether those rules are statutes, social mores, or religious customs. But when those variations grow large, communities lose their cohesion and split apart. This happens frequently in observant religious communities where there is a significant explicit focus on the rules.

I think people care deeply about rules, even when their values, priorities, and reasoning are often very different from mine. The strongest example that comes to mind are the economic psychology studies showing that people value enforcing fairness over personal reward.

It’s tempting to think that others who violate or ignore the rules we value don’t care that much about rules in general, but I think it far more often means that the other person simply cares about a different set of rules.