Here’s a question to ponder: Why do we set our kid’s bedtime at a nice round number like 9:30 pm, rather than 9:15 or 9:45? How about 9:41, or 9:22, or some other equally arbitrary time? And is that the time your kids actually have to be in bed with the lights turned off – or the time that they need to start getting ready?
If you think about it, every “rule” has a bit of an arbitrary aspect to it. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, but where should that line be? How wide is the “grey area” between being too lenient (an 11:30 bedtime?) or too stringent (how about 8pm sharp)? Both these extremes are arguably out of the question, so the reasonable “grey area” is probably narrower than that. Somewhere between those reasonable limits, however, you need to pick a bedtime for your kids – and 9:30 seems to be a good compromise. But once the rule has been set, how strictly should you enforce it?
How often have we seen this: The kids know as well as you do that 10pm is still within the “reasonable” window … so a little delay here, a little delay there … and after a few weeks, the kids are going to bed at 10pm on a regular basis. But the official rule of the house is still bedtime at 9:30!
I’ve always been fascinated with the arbitrary nature of the actual boundary – how and where the limit is set – for any rule; this is a deep-rooted problem that has vexed humanity for centuries, in every culture and on every continent.
In the USA, our society has determined that kids can’t drink alcohol until they are 21 years old. At that magic day in your life, you are suddenly free to drink as much as you like. There is no “Slop” in that rule, as far as the legal enforcement goes. No “grey area” at all to work with.
On the other hand, the speed limit on a highway might be 65 miles per hour – yet everyone knows that you usually won’t get a ticket unless you are going at least ten miles per hour over the limit. So in our minds we don’t think we are speeding till we get to 75.
Sometimes you may have to ask why a rule was enacted in the first place. One small town in Iowa for example, has an ordinance on the books that proclaims “The Ice Cream Man and his truck are banned”. So I’m wondering, what DID the Ice Cream man do to deserve such a harsh penalty? It must have been quite drastic in order to justify banning EVERY Ice Cream Man (and their trucks) from the town forever!
Of course, we have to have rules. Our society would fall apart without them. Yet, pushing the boundaries and doing things that break the rules has opened the door to some of our greatest discoveries. Would Galileo have published his works proving Heliocentric motion if he had not broken the laws of the day?
Admittedly, Galileo was mostly breaking religious laws, which even in his day made little sense. Are all religious laws idiotic, out of date, with little relevance in modern society? No, not all – but many are. It’s quite easy to see that Kosher laws have been misinterpreted and are observed in bizarre ways that are far outside of their original meaning; but just try getting a conservative Jew to eat a bacon cheeseburger.
Across the board, rules and laws can have unintended consequences. Sometimes these “side effects” are positive, sometimes they are detrimental. The consequences can be completely unrelated to the original intent of the rule; sometimes the rule will backfire – and cause the opposite effect. Airbags in cars, for example, were designed to save lives. Indeed, they were proven to be effective on adults and certainly reduce the death toll from traffic accidents, so laws were enacted mandating airbags in all cars. But early on, we found that the airbags on the passenger side actually contributed to an increase in child fatalities! The solution to this problem was to move all children to the back seat. That’s all well and good, but this has led to a small, but “statistically significant”, increase in the number of young children forgotten in unattended vehicles. An example of unintended consequences at its finest.
Sometimes, the establishment of a rule in itself challenges people to purposefully try and break the rule, just to prove that they can – actually increasing the incidence of what the rule was trying to prohibit in the first place. Let’s say that some innovative technology is developed that can quickly and inexpensively detect cyanide in food. A new law is then introduced which mandates that all food in every restaurant is scanned for cyanide before being served to customers. Do you think the incidence of cyanide poisoning would go up or down compared to what it is today? I’m sure it would go up (from pretty much zero today) when people somehow feel compelled to prove that they can foil the device.
Emergency situations oftentimes require a snap decision; helping someone – maybe even saving their lives – might require breaking some rule. A lifeguard in Miami was recently fired for saving someone from drowning, because he didn’t wait for backup (a lifeguard is supposed to be “in the chair” at all times). Police and firemen are faced with similar, or even more difficult decisions, every day – sometimes they do the “right” thing but it’s actually illegal, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they make the wrong choice altogether and someone gets killed. It’s a tough position to be in. The root of the problem is that every one of these situations is different, and as much as we try we cannot foresee and write a law for every scenario … and then expect every officer to remember which law applies in less than a tenth of a second. Right or wrong, we have to be able to rely on their judgement of the situation.
People in a position of power can abuse their privileges and “mandate” laws that legislate their own personal beliefs. How often have we seen that? This can be anything from a small town mayor who passed an ordinance saying you can only have sex in the missionary position (no, I’m not making that up!) to a national dictator like Hitler who effectively suspended all civil liberties from people that weren’t of pure German heritage.
On the flip side, laws are often “negotiated” between various parties. While the intention is to come up with a fair compromise, the net result isn’t any less arbitrary. Why do we depreciate residential real estate over 27.5 years? My guess is that it was probably a compromise between one economist that suggested 25 and another that suggested 30. So now, everyone in the USA who owns rental real estate has to deal with the “half year” ramifications of a 27.5-year depreciation table.
Dress codes in schools can be frustrating for both the students and the school administration. The rules are typically based on the “comfort level” of the parents in their district, and schools bend over backwards trying to define what’s acceptable to wear to school and what’s not. However, one parent in the community may be completely comfortable and would not bat an eye if her daughter wore a skimpy little outfit every day, while her neighbor gets very uptight if a student is not completely covered from head to toe even on the hottest day of the year. It seems that every June we hear about some high school senior who is denied the honor of graduating with their class because they wore something that they (and their parents) were perfectly comfortable with – but someone else wasn’t.
How about laws that are strictly symbolic? Berkeley California has their “Nuclear Free Act of 1986” which authorizes the city to levy fines for detonating nuclear weapons within the city limits. I guess Russia will have to go after Las Vegas instead! Seriously though, it really is just a symbolic gesture. There are also parts of this legislation that prohibits other nuclear activities, but these are ineffective; University of California Berkeley is a major research center for nuclear physics, and as a state funded institution it overrides the city level legislation.
Regulations can be established based on data analysis. A drug, for example, may be somewhat effective at a dosage of 20mg, and more effective at a 40mg dosage but with greater side effects. The side effects are lethal at 50mg. So what dosage does the FDA allow? There are guidelines and very precise ways to scientifically determine the best dosage – but if you really want to get the most effective administration, the prescribing physician may have to take into account the weight of the patient, metabolism, and other factors. In the end, the FDA may make a judgement call and only allow the drug to be prescribed at the lower dosage just to be safe.
No matter how hard we try, we cannot create a set of rules or laws that delineates “right” and “wrong” for every possible scenario. But if the rule isn’t explicitly stated, someone will try to find a way around it. Human nature compels us to “push the boundaries” to circumvent the rules. The entire United States Tax Code is a great example of what was initially a fairly simple set of rules, but has become more and more complex as we’ve patched loopholes that were being exploited. Our tax code has now evolved into a messy labyrinth of unintelligible legal language that spans some 20 volumes, totaling almost 17,000 pages, yet people and corporations still try to find any way they can to circumvent it. As a consequence, everyone else has to pay more for their tax preparation to comply with the overly cumbersome laws – and that in itself becomes an extra “tax” that we all have to pay!
Looking at the bigger picture, we have to make philosophical decisions on enacting broad aspects of government policy. This has been an issue that has pitted many presidential nominees (and their respective political parties) against each other. Do we “highly regulate” certain industries or not? When it comes to things like healthcare, finance, aviation, energy, and others, history has shown that some level of regulation is absolutely necessary. But again – where do you draw the line in the sand, how strictly do you enforce the actual placement of the line, and how many loopholes will there be that will require additional regulations in order to make the line effective?
There is a very large cost to all of this: writing the rules, enforcing the rules, punishing people that break the rules. Establishing the rule of “Bedtime at 9:30” might not have a cost to it, but it becomes ineffective if it’s not enforced.
Obviously the cost of defining and enforcing public policy is huge – just think of what we pay for local police departments in every city, plus federal agencies such as the SEC, FDA, FTC, EPA, FCC, ATF, NRC, USDA, OSHA, etc. This is just a small sampling of agencies whose ‘primary purpose’ is developing and enforcing new regulations. And then, we spend billions on justice administration (courts, judges, lawyers) and punishment (prisons) for those who break the laws.
There’s an additional aspect to all this, which I don’t think we take into consideration often enough: there is a high level of stress that comes with the pressures of modern society, and living with all these complex regulations certainly adds to the stress. This is an issue that’s hard to quantify, but there is no doubt that it contributes to the number of people who will just “lose it” one day and commit heinous acts of terror against whomever is unlucky enough to be in their way.
I do not think there is a solution to the “arbitrary” nature of where we set the limit for each rule or law; that truly is a fundamental issue which humanity will always face. We do need rules in order to function as a society, and we need to ensure the rules are enforced – but defending the reasoning for the exact point that something goes from being “legal” to being “Illegal” is almost impossible.
I wish, however, that we could find a better way to manage the enforcement of our laws. I’d like to be able to set clear expectations so everyone understands the intention of each rule – yet at the same time have a little “wiggle room” in the grey areas, without always requiring even more complicated rules to patch all the loopholes. We could then allow lawmakers and enforcers to embrace exceptions, instead of punishing them, when someone pushes the boundaries for social and technical advancement rather than for personal gain.
On the other hand, one person’s “technical advancement” is another person’s “evil incarnate”. Maybe I’m just asking for too much.