This post explores a line of speculation on why we clamour for rules on complex issues in our lives. As speculation, this means I will lay a line reasoning with my critical assumptions on the table so to speak. Hence, there are no citations so to speak, only a sense of gratitude to Nassim, Taleb for giving me a sense of uncertainty and risk.
Why do we love rules on complex issues? I believe because we:
- ABHOR uncertainty. We don’t even like to use the term, and when we need to refer to it we call it risk.
- MISTRUST risk (especially risk management). Managing risk means exercising judgement because we know we don’t have “all” the answers or information regarding outcomes. Hence, we (and others who might impact us) might fail, make mistakes, get undesired outcomes. Perhaps even more disturbing, is rewards are asymmetrical, some get a lot, and most of us get very little.
- CRAVE certainty. This is where we (and especially others) always know the right, correct, appropriate thing to do. When we act accordingly, we always get the desired results and outcomes, there is fairness in the land, life is predictable (and comfortable)
Rules are the preferred method for bringing certainty into our lives. With rules there is little or no judgement, one only needs to know what they are and act accordingly. They give us assurance that if we do the applicable things the “rule way” all will be well when the results and outcomes ensue. Our future is predictable, because the rules dictate what it will be.
- Right/wrong. Many rules, especially ones built around legalistic premises, help us be model citizens. They give us a moral compass by which to be virtuous.
- Correct/incorrect. The comfort of always knowing how to not make mistakes. Judgement, by definition includes the notion of “guessing” in some fashion or other how to not make mistakes. Wouldn’t it be great to know how never to make them. Rules will accomplish this.
- Appropriate/inappropriate. The desire to never offend, to be politically correct. If this has implications on other values such as free speech, this is acceptable, as the greater value is make everyone feel comfortable in our presence. Ideally, everyone will abide by the same set of “manners”, this will facilitate the aspiration of complete accommodation in terms of “mores”.
The reader might suspect I am engaging in some levels of sarcasm, but I am not. Nearly all of us (including myself) subscribe to the benefits of the above. I don’t want to unwittingly offend someone else. I don’t want to make mistakes that cause harm to self and others. I want to be a law abiding citizen.
The issue here is the consequence of assuming that we can make uncertainty (and risk) certain. This is most easily achievable in social settings that are relatively homogeneous, that is we are similarly like minded to begin with. Rules, to be most effective should not have to deal with exceptions or change.
Exceptions suggest that our rules aren’t good enough (horrors, suggests the need for judgement, hence risk and uncertainty). Rules run into the most difficulty when they have to deal with multiple variables. The rule book becomes too large or has to acknowledge an exception process that is reliant on judgement. When rules become large in number, complexity is introduced. OMG, we run the “risk” (no certainty over time) that we will make mistakes by applying the wrong rule, or using the correct rule the wrong way. OMG, we have introduce not just risk but uncertainty as well. Our social solution to this circumstance is to establish a professional bureaucracy (lawyers, accountants, regulators, etc.) to manage the “tome of rules”.
Rules are susceptible to obsolescence through technology advances. Remember, rules by their very nature are process/throughput oriented. They focus on how should act in given situations. The act of faith is that by acting virtuously, we will always achieve the desired outcome (good life). Process always incorporates assumptions on how, and how always incorporates assumptions about the enabling technology. What happens when the enabling technology shifts? In fields such as health this is a continuous issue. Not only do we need to regulate how we conduct health practices, we need to regulate the introduction of new practices. Consequences? Many very helpful (we hopefully reduce the risk of introducing potential unintended health consequences). Others, not so much (people are not receiving best potential care and the costs of bringing new technology has its own set of consequences).
When rules become complex, there is the likelihood (certainty??) that an industry of rule “skirters” will emerge. These will be the most creative ones in the field. They look for ways to to subvert the intent of the rules by using the complexities within and amongst the rules themselves. We have heard many reports of these kinds of actions within the tax and financial systems as they seem to be the most fun to report on.
Our responses? To add more rules and/or policing bureaucracies. Adding more rules to the complex actually runs the high probability that the “skirters” will shift elsewhere with the rule sets to find maneuverability. Policing like functions can carry with them their own set of “risks”. They can become co-opted by those being regulated (many believe this happens in telecommunications for example), they can become out-of-control in their own right (human rights tribunals have been so accused). What is fascinating is that these quasi policing agencies are entrusted to act with judgement and discretion. The very thing that those being regulated were untrusted to doing. The act of faith is these agencies will operate over time in the interests and spirit of theses who set them up. But when they “drift” so to speak we are seeing the consequences of uncertainty. Uncertainty being introduced by the very actions to reduce it in the first place. Somehow the irony gets lost on those who clamour for this uncertainty and risk reduction in the first place.
Personally, I find rules incredibly useful. But, I find them with huge side-effects. Kind of like taking a very strong drug to deal with a disease, but a drug with significant side-effects as well. Which is worse? the disease or the cure? Not always easy to determine before hand.
This is why, I wish that policy (a.k.a. rule proposers) would offer up a set of options to how we might choose to control/moderate undesired behaviours, results and outcomes. Because of my background in organizational design, I have been fascinated by Henry Mintzberg’s five coordinating mechanisms:
- Mutual adjustment. the simplest and most direct approach possible in social settings
- Direct supervision. Here someone is delegated the task of determining priorities and applicable tare-offs concerning them.
- Standardization of skills. Here we strive to ensure those who act are at least competent to do so.
- Standardization of work. This is really the business form of rule making, it is about the process of the how itself.
- Standardization of outputs. This is the business of setting objectives and desired achievables and letting this charged with delivery to determine how and with what skills.
I would personally add a six one: Determination of outcomes or benefits. An example of this in the “negative” form is the doctors oath to “Do no harm!”