Do we really need rules?

Criminals are better at their jobs than you are. But don’t feel too bad about it. The fact is, it’s easier to be successful when breaking the rules than it is playing by the rules.

Drug running is such a profitable way to break the rules that Pablo Escobar had an estimated net worth in 1993 of $30 billion, which in today’s money is $85.2 billion. Amado Carrillo Fuentes was the head of the Juaréz Cartel and his net worth is $56.8 billion today. And Carlos Lehder, co-founder of the Medellin Cartel has a net worth of approximately $2.7 billion. Clearly, breaking the rules can be much more profitable than sticking to them.

What would it take to stop you from doing your work? Laptop breaks? Colleague interrupts you? Feeling sick today? Would Pablo have stopped drug-running if his laptop broke? Unlikely.

The reasons for individuals breaking the rules have been explored at depth by criminologists, psychologists, policy makers, etc., with reasons focused on the motivations of the individual such as greed and revenge, and on societal factors such as poverty and unemployment (and without much agreement). But we’re not so interested in why people break or follow the rules, but why the rules are there in the first place, why breaking the rules is often more advantageous than obeying them, and whether we really need rules at all.

Our concept of laws and rules as being about achieving balance, order and harmony goes back as far as humanity has been gathering together in groups. Rules exist to create order where there would otherwise be chaos. Without rules, and the vast majority of people obeying the rules, our social systems (nations, organisations, communities, tribes) would descend into anarchy, right? This is the prevailing common sense we base the writing of rules upon. All rule-making starts from the assumption that people will want to do things that the rule-makers don’t want them to, otherwise why would the rules be needed.

This is the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. We’ve created systems that enable people to do things that go against maintaining order, and then we have to put rules in place to try to ensure people don’t do those things. What if, instead, we designed systems that enable people to do things that maintain order, and make it difficult to create disorder, and so don’t need rules to control and punish people? What if we made it easier to be successful by following the rules?

The Code of Ur-Nammu, the earliest written record of laws, dates from the 22nd century B.C. The laws are written in a casuistic form of ‘if you commit this crime, then you’ll get this punishment’. So, ‘if someone severed the nose of another man with a copper knife, he must pay two-thirds of a mina of silver’. We don’t know how much nose severing with copper knives happened back then, but it seems these written laws were an attempt to create clarity about the consequences of breaking a rule. This was only possible because there was an authority that could not only write the rules but also ensure the punishment was carried out. Without that, the rules would have been useless. This is a pattern followed in nearly all later codes of law. They express a rule, which if broken leads to a punishment, which is enacted by an authority more powerful than any individual.

And this has been the pattern for all rule-making ever since. Throughout the rest of history we have accepted that people could walk around with copper knives and that sometimes noses might get severed, but if that happened someone would be punished. Never did someone decide to take away all the copper knives so that noses couldn’t be severed.

In more modern times we’ve come to realise that crime and punishment are better considered separately, and that the relationship between an individual and other members of society and it’s institutions might be more complex than can be expressed on a stone tablet. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau explored the concept of the ‘social contract’. This implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, even where there is a cost to the individual, was used as a means of explaining the origin of government and the obligations of subjects. Unsurprisingly, the ideas were used to reinforce the dominant morals of the time and provide philosophical reasoning for things like land ownership by rich people and conscription into armed conflict for the greater good of one’s country.

The history of law, state rule and legal authority is complicated, spanning many countries and centuries, but the trend we notice is how obeying the rules becomes more deeply embedded in the psyche of people, those who adhere to the rules get no benefit, how those who don’t get caught benefit greatly, how for those who do get caught punishment creates more disorder, and that there is always a need for more rules. Never is there an attempt to design social systems that enable cohesion-creating, order-maintaining behaviour by default.

Perhaps we should think about it in a different way.

What if speed cameras fined those that break the speed limit and sent the money from the fine to five drivers who were driving below the limit? What effect might this have on the behaviour of drivers? Or better than that, what if we implemented speed-control devices in all vehicles that make it impossible to exceed the speed limit? Then we wouldn’t need to punish those who break the limit, and those that live in the area would benefit from safer roads and lower air pollution.

What if companies were led by socially-aware people who aimed for their work to benefit stakeholders across the global rather than a small group of shareholders? What if the global economy rewarded companies for being responsible for the externalities of their operations? Then we wouldn’t need fine companies for causing environmental damage or boycott those using child labour, then our climate and children wouldn’t suffer.

In the past, our society has had to rely on the authority of institutions or social contracts between members of society to create cohesion. But our future might look very different. The technologically advanced society of future centuries could rely less on rule-making and breaking, and more on enabling and empowering. Less on humans attempting to control others, and more on technology creating the right environments for cohesive societies.

Is this the rosy future we should all be hoping for? One of total control where no one can do anything wrong because our systems are so perfectly designed as positive enablers? Of course not.

If we removed all rule-breaking, we would halt the progression and evolution of society. Rule-breakers are a dynamic force for driving improvements in society. We only have the child protection laws that we do because of the awful things that have happened to children in the past. If tomorrow, we were able to shift to a radically different means of maintaining cohesion across society, one that didn’t rely on rules but enabled only positive behaviours, and it didn’t also have mechanisms for introducing change, then would society stagnate.

Whatever the systems of creating social cohesion we have, they need to allow for chaos and order so that our society evolves. Too much chaos and there is nothing stable to build upon. Too much order and nothing changes.

Maybe our system of rule-making and breaking works exactly as it should.