Rule-makers at play

Children learn about rules very early in their social development, even though they don’t immediately understand the contractual nature of social rules as opposed to the unbending non-contractual nature of physical laws. We’re not talking of the bendy laws of climate science, but more reliable stuff such as gravity and falling over under its influence.

As well as learning that rules have consequences for their own behaviour, children quickly learn to have a go at setting their own ad hoc rules, particularly when playing with other children. They soon learn the advantages of games where they can change the rules in their favour during play. Who hasn’t seen it – I mean in children?

Of course we’ve all seen it and it still sounds very familiar doesn’t it? Familiar in the adult world too – and that’s a real problem. There is something both serious and infantile about ad hoc rule-making. To me, the obviously infantile aspect of modern life is partly explained by an excessive, essentially infantile obsession with fiddling the rules.

We haven’t left the playground as far behind as we suppose, yet this obsession with ad hoc rules doesn’t really have a name does it? We have good phrases to describe childish behaviour such as he threw his toys out of the pram, but we don’t take it far enough. Apart from rather weak words such as infantile or childish, we haven’t devised useful names for our tendency to revert to playground rule-making when the existing rules still don’t bend the game in our favour. Maybe it would be too revealing, too likely to start a serious debate. Maybe it’s just another rule.

Infantile, game-fixing, ad hoc rule-makers seem to link authoritarian politics from Stalin to Hitler to Mao in a way that conventional labels don’t quite bring out. Even today, even after we have supposedly learned the authoritarian lessons at such a colossal human cost, political parties still have their obsessive rule-makers alert to every way of rigging the game. If at first you don’t succeed rig, rig again. We seem to be forever lumbered with people who are simply unable to let go of the manipulative little tactics they learned far too well in the playground.

Our three main UK political parties and many pressure groups are stuffed with ad hoc rule-makers, but I have to say I see far more on the left than the right. David Cameron I definitely see as an ad hoc rule-maker, so he’s on the wrong side of the political fence I’d say.

New game    – voters are allowed to request a Parliamentary debate via the web.

Ad hoc rule – I’ll impose a three line whip in favour of the existing EU policy.

It won’t do David – it makes you an ad hoc rule-bending fraud – exactly the kind of behaviour you most certainly learned as a child by the age of four. Maybe even earlier because I’m sure you were a bright lad. Some of us grow out of it, but you obviously haven’t. Conservative voters of Witney should have sussed you by now, but I’d not bet on it. Clegg and Miliband are obvious rule-fiddlers too, so that’s 3 – 0 to you I’m afraid, but we’ll be back.

A good example of the infantile rule-maker at work is provided by the anti-smoking lobby. As a lifelong non-smoker I have no axe to grind here and to me it seems obvious that the anti-smoking lobby sees smokers as naughty because they will keep defying every new ad hoc rule that comes along. It isn’t a health issue because adults don’t get into a lather about the health of people they don’t know, particularly people who’ve had the health issues screeched at them for fifty years. The important social issue isn’t the smokers, it’s the anti-smokers and the curiously infantile nature of their behaviour in endlessly fiddling with already draconian smoking rules. Those naughty smokers just won’t play properly. Of course they won’t, they’ve grown up.

An obvious defect of a rule-obsessed culture like ours is that charlatans and fraudsters soon learn to game the system. Flexibility and self-reliance are lost and with them goes our maturity and our adult defences against all kinds of avoidable mischief. Of course usually the charlatans, fraudsters and rule-makers are the same people, as they certainly are with the EU. Not that all rule-making is infantile of course, but we mostly sorted out the adult part of it many years ago.

So who lurks behind the rule-makers – are they merely useful idiots? Is their childish rule-fiddling a means to an end? Of course it is. There are serious players on the world stage as well as the fools and their rules.

4 comments for “Rule-makers at play

  1. ivan
    November 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    The government has admitted that e-petitions are a farce.
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/11/04/government_epetitions/

    • james Higham
      November 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm

      Yes Ivan – we always knew they were and what’s worse, they have all the data on those troublemakers as well for later use during the coming troubles.

    • David A. Evans
      November 12, 2011 at 4:26 am

      As Richard North keeps pointing out, these things allow them to set the rules. We have to start lower down the hierarchy.

    • November 12, 2011 at 7:20 am

      I don’t think we know yet how e-petitions will develop – as with most political initiatives. I can’t imagine that anyone ever expected much to come of them.

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