This Pandemic Is Showing Us How More Rules Lead to More Problems
I have argued that governments have stepped out of their job’s responsibilities for a long time now.
Originally created to set up common rules simplifying life in the community (the law), governments have grown from an advisory role to becoming their citizens’ parents.
Governments tell us what to do (eg: tie your seat belt); punish us if we don’t do it (fines) and help us in case of financial troubles (benefits).
Treated like kids, citizens behave as such as a result. They act out of wish and wait for institutions to further provide instructions on “how to do life” (go to school, get a job, buy a house, make kids, retire, die).
While this system has moderately been working so far, the worldwide epidemic has shown how bad things can turn out when the government’s influence on their citizens’ lives is too strong.
I argue in this article that too many rules, order, and control lead to a loss in critical thinking and decision-making capacities which impact how populations react in unknown situations.
Rules Make Us Feel Safe
In the ’80s, a small US town set off to decrease the speed at which cars were crossing the city. They put up signs, radars, speed breakers…and nothing worked.
Puzzled, the mayor took it all out and even erased the traditional line between car lanes.
Coming up fast into the city, drivers started decreasing their speed limits.
Confused by the absence of any signalization, they took upon themselves the responsibility to drive safely.
The absence of signs had made the road “a lawless environment”. Drivers had had to come up with their own “code” and behavior. If they wished to avoid accidents, they had to take their driving into their own hands.
Creating Rules Is Difficult
Many entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have highlighted in books, blog posts, and interviews how difficult it is to create a startup. Peter Thiel once quoted his friend that said “building a company is like eating glass while staring into the abyss”.
But why is building companies so hard?
The number one difficulty is that there is no roadmap to follow. No rule to structure. No plan.
Every problem must be figured out on its own because it has never been tackled before. There are therefore no existing principles on building a company because each company will be different to build.
For each company that takes off, rules and systems must be invented from scratch.
And that’s hard.
The Absence of Structure and Rules Makes Life Difficult
Successful business people all share the common attribute of being excellent problem-solvers.
The world (hell, life) is based on problems and solutions.
Each solution has been built up and structured in its own way. And a solution is a set of rules and structure, a path to solving a certain problem.
Let’s take the need for food as an example.
The need for food, one of the most basic and widespread problem, has for solution food making. Hunting, agriculture, supermarkets, restaurants or Uber eats are all solutions to “hunger”.
The most basic one, hunting, has led to agriculture which has led, after hundred of thousand of years of innovation, to web-based food-delivery services.
All of the people that came up with these solutions were good at solving problems and came up with better ways to solve the need to eat.
While in the past, you may have taken your spire when you were hungry, today, you take off your phone and pay with PayPal.
Each and every one of the innovators that invented these solutions will tell you how hard it was to find them.
They’ll also tell you why.
The reason is that there was no way to solve these problems at first. They had to figure it out by themselves entirely.
Peter Thiel expresses the process of finding a way to solve a problem as “going from zero to one”. It is a process during which a solution to a problem is created out of nothing.
And that’s hard. Really hard.
In his best-selling book “Thinking fast and slow”, Daniel Kahneman outlines the difference between low and high-energy cognitive processes.
The brain has a hard time maintaining high-energy cognitive processes, and will almost always choose the low-energy thinking process to spend as little energy as possible (this is expressed through biases, which are shortcuts taken by the brain to avoid hard-thinking).
In his book “Cashvertising”, Drew Eric Whitman highlights the need for marketers to simplify as much as possible their ads, quoting Sir Reynolds:
“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking”.
Thinking is hard.
The absence of a preconceived plan, rule, road map, or instruction will confuse the brain. It will search them at any cost to avoid having to discover them.
In society, rule-making is effectively organized by institutions that create systems and structures within which people will be able to act.
Institutions tell people what to do (culture), what to believe (religion), how to dress (fashion), what to buy (advertising), how much they are allowed to consume (money) and what you can and cannot do (law).
The intertwining of these rules leaves people a restrictive number of options they can choose from.
Added to one another, these choices are called freedom.
Which Amount of Freedom Do You Really Want?
The amount of freedom people enjoy is decided by their choice to abide by a system of rules or not.
People immigrating from an authoritarian country to democracy are looking for a higher degree of freedom and autonomy.
People adopting religious practices and customs, however, aim to restrict their personal range of actions.
Unwilling, unable or untrained to make their own decisions by themselves, they’re looking for rules to follow (what to believe, what to think, how to act, what to eat, how to dress, etc).
Following these rules will ease the amount of decision-making they have to make since these decisions have already been made for them.
It will also lower the amount of freedom they enjoy.
The only question to solve here is why. Why would anyone be insane enough to lower their own amount of freedom?
Because a lower level of freedom translates to a lower amount of responsibilities.
And everyone hates responsibilities.
The Positive Relationship Between Freedom and Responsibilities
When I was a teenager, I aspired to more freedom as much as I dreaded it.
In my head, I could leave school and move out of my parents’ house…at the price of finding myself a job to earn a living and pay my own rent.
I understood that as long as my freedom was limited, so were my responsibilities. And responsibilities scarred the hell out of me.
Yet as much as I didn’t like the contract I had signed (do well at school in exchange for food and shelter), I understood how it worked and I thought it was fair.
It was much safer for me to stay at school and do what I was told than to go into the wild and maybe end up with nothing (I have since changed my outlook entirely).
So I stayed on the school path.
Similarly to people adopting religions, philosophies, and preconceived lifestyles, my desire to remain a student was motivated by the desire…to lower my responsibilities while increasing my freedom as much as I could.
This why everyone loves being a student. Low responsibilities, high degree of freedom.
And this why everyone hates working: responsibilities.
Call me crazy, but I believe that getting rid of responsibilities is the number one worldwide sport on this planet.
A religion is essentially refusing to take your own fate into your hands and putting it into the hands of a deity.
A job is refusing to take your own fate into your hands and putting it into the hands of a company.
A citizenship is also, essentially putting some parts of responsibilities that could be yours (health, pension, safety) into the hands of a government.
This isn’t bad.
I am more than happy to have the state of Belgium managing my retirement. I am thankful every day for the hospitals that were built and can welcome me if I get sick.
We can’t all take care of 100% of our own lives, and must sometimes outsource a bit of it to others at a small price.
However…this desire to decrease responsibilities as much as one can do can lead to problematic situations where there are no rules to follow, such as in a pandemic.
As we said, a lower level of freedom leads to a lower amount of responsibilities. A lower amount of responsibilities leads to low-quality skills in decision-making and critical thinking (since they have been outsourced to institutions).
A lower skillset in decision-making and critical thinking lead to the incapacity to make decisions in a situation for which no rules have previously been established.
Those who fail to act appropriately, fail.
The result is a terrorized population, mentally powerless, addicted to the news, and waiting desperately for the government to send out instructions…only to refuse to entirely comply later on.
The Rules Paradox
The problem with rule-making in society is that humans remain as much attached to freedom as they dread responsibilities.
This is illustrated in people’s shallow and often flexible respect and interpretation of the rules and structures they themselves requested at first.
We want to get jobs (aka money), but we don’t really want to work.
We want to be safe in cities, but we cross the road when the light is red.
We believe in whatever deity we were taught about, but waiting for marriage to get laid is kinda old-fashioned!
Humans tend to naturally push back on the rules they demanded in the first place.
In the case of the pandemic, this was expressed by the population requesting measures while ultimately refusing to strictly apply them.
Theoretically, the cycle is established as follow:
1. People ask for rules and structure to avoid thinking critically for themselves because it’s hard.
2. Institutions create rules and structure.
3. People naturally push back on these rules and structures because they like freedom.
This attitude leads to an almost schizophrenic equation, a paradox where people feel safe within the rules that have been created for them to the extent that they don’t mind making them loose…just a bit.
Rules Make People Feel Safe
Having people pushing back on rules they themselves ask for is universal among humans.
This leads to a loss of individual critical thinking and decision-making skills since people automatically operate within the rules and structure they are given without questioning this paradigm nor making it for themselves.
As such, when no paradigm is given, people feel lost, confused, scared, and helpless. They are unable to decide for themselves what to do because it has been the task of the government up until then.
But when even the government doesn’t know what to do…what do people do then?
The Bottom Line
The government and its myriad of rules-making institutions have inserted themselves into people’s lives up to the extent that citizens have become unable to think critically and operate intelligent decisions.
In the case of a pandemic, each individual should think and act according to what he or she considers safe, smart, and healthy since the success of the operation depends on individuals.
Unfortunately, the pandemic did not offer citizens the chance to do so. Rather, the normal and natural rule-making process has led governments to establish structures commonly accepted by people that subsequently slightly pushed back on them.
Responsible behavior and critical thinking were entirely absent, as expressed by the numerous parties organized prior to or during quarantines.
Because the government has been operating in people’s lives for so long, people have become incapable to act independently.
If we hope to restore common thinking, individual initiatives, and prosperity through autonomous enterprising, it’s not more rules and governments that we need.
It is less.