Not all rules are made equal. Some rules, like the speed limit, are broken by everyone and their mother, and are enforced (mostly) when people are breaking them to a dangerous point. Other rules, like “don’t murder people”, are enforced far more. Why is that?
Different Rules, Different Tools
- Some rules are in place to assign blame to someone with bad judgement. There’s nothing morally wrong with jaywalking when there are no cars coming, but you are at fault if you walk into oncoming traffic.
- Some rules are in place to discourage bad habits from forming, like the drinking age. This law is so commonly broken that it’s expected behavior at this point, and yet I’ve never seen someone get arrested for under-age drinking. Despite this, the law conveys the dangers of drinking, makes it harder for minors to acquire alcohol, and prevents students from openly sharing alcohol in schools.
- Some rules, like mandatory attendance, exist to get people to show up to an event or perform an activity. Even when attendance isn’t taken, many people will still show up to prevent unnecessary trouble. College orientation activities are a prime example.
- Some rules exist simply because they haven’t been updated. Before 2020, some companies – especially older ones – didn’t allow employees to work from home. Working from home was seen as an unnecessary risk by upper management with no tangible benefit to any of the executives. Along comes the coronavirus, and suddenly the jobs people have been doing in an office for decades are suddenly doable from home.
Rules for Rules
Rules should be justified. If a sign on a fish tank says, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH GLASS, do you think most people, especially children, are likely to obey? Does your answer change if the sign were to say PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH GLASS, IT SCARES THE FISH?
Additionally, there shouldn’t be too many rules, even if they are justified. The more rules in place, the less likely people will follow them. Just think about it: If Moses received 206 commandments, do you think his followers would view Thou shalt not eat meat and dairy with the same level of respect as Thou shalt not kill? More rules can imply that there are strict guidelines to be followed, but people will interpret them as: Whoever came up with this must be fun at parties. Unnecessary rules draw attention away from the important ones.
Wrapping Up Rules
I’m no rule expert. Nevertheless, I recognize that creating and selectively enforcing rules is a valuable skill, for both policy-makers and policy-enforcers alike. If you want people to respect your rules, make sure they have a reason for being there.