The Trouble with Just Following the Rules
For as long as there have been rules, there have been people who would rather follow rules than be human, decent, or sensible. In academic jargon this is called being “technocratic”. Today our society has taken this particular perversion quite far, and it is something that needs to be undone. I admit this will be difficult, since our governments and corporations have all become rule-centric in an effort to exert control over everything they touch. But a challenging goal is the best kind.
Consider the story of Craig Morrison, an elderly man of St. Martin, New Brunswick, who wished to build a house where he could care for his sick wife in their final years. Having built five homes himself, he knew his business, but the local building inspectors threatened him with fines and imprisonment because his construction did not meet the standards laid out in the building code. Far from being shoddy, the house was built well past the standards of the code, but in ways that weren’t in technical compliance with it, e.g. the lumber did not have the right stickers on it, since Mr. Morrison cut and planed it himself at his own sawmill. I invite you to read the full article for all the details.
The construction was more than sufficient to be safe, livable, and robust, but the rules had been broken. There was no actual need to punish Mr. Morrison, but he had to be brought to court six times anyway. The aims of the building code had been met, but the words of the code had not been. It is as if they were some sort of holy scripture. Anyone who doesn’t believe that the Bible should be read literally ought to ask themselves if they feel the same way about laws, rules, and regulations.
One of the principal problems with being technocratic is that it reduces people morally. A person just following the rules can hide behind them, refusing to admit to their humanity or that of the person opposite them. Many of us have experienced that unique blend of frustration and rage from being turned away at a government office because we don’t have the right stamp on a form, or we haven’t gone to such-and-such window first to get another form. This is why we use the term “faceless bureaucrat”: the person in question literally has no face, in the sense of an identity, or a self. They have become a punch-card reader that can only work in ones and zeros, in yes and no.
On the other hand, all of us, I believe, can remember or imagine the relief we would feel when pulled over by police for speeding, and being let off with a warning. It usually relies on being polite to the officer and coming across as human, which said officer reciprocates. That is an example of a rule intelligently applied, or in this case not. It is good law enforcement because it reminds us of the law, doesn’t harm us, and builds some trust between us and the police. That’s a much better outcome than us coming away with a ticket, and a growing hatred for “the system”. If that happens we stop recognising those who work for “the system” as human, and then everyone loses.