Thursday, April 28, 2005

Ends and means

Yesterday I bemoaned the total lack of nuance in most of America's populace. In particular, I pointed out a company that applied a rule so uniformly as to cause me to abandon my freelance work for them. It's a classic case of forgetting the reason for a rule and making the rule itself the end they want to achieve. That isn't the way things should be; the rule or law should be a means to an end, not an end into itself.

Unfortunately, too many law enforcers and bureaucrats confuse the ends with the means, thus elevating the means (the law or rule) to the status of the ultimate goal. The HR bureaucrats at the company I used to do work for forgot that the reason for their new rule was to keep managers from firing employees and hiring them back the next day as full-time consultants; the rule wasn't designed to turn true freelancers into unwilling company employees. But once you have a rule, it's iron-clad. It exists, therefore they must enforce it.

It's the same way with many laws in this country. We create a law, and then the only thing we know how to do is enforce it. We forget why we created the law in the first place, and enforce the law even when it doesn't make sense.

Let's face it. Most laws are created to keep people from killing, hurting, or annoying other people. (And the precedence ideally falls into that exact order.) However, many laws only accomplish one of these goals under certain circumstances; the law must be enforced even when it doesn't accomplish the goal.

I like to use the example of a stop sign on a rural road at three in the morning. The reason we have stop signs and stoplights is to keep people from running into each other. Obviously, this is important when there's a lot of cars around to run into; you don't want people running stop signs and subsequently running into other motorists, hurting or killing them. So we put up stop signs, and we make it illegal to run them.

But what do you do when it's three in the morning on a rural road, with the nearest motorist miles away? The motorist who runs that lonely stop sign has broken a law, and gets arrested for it. (If there's a cop around, of course.) However, that motorist hasn't endangered anyone else -- he hasn't killed, hurt, or annoyed anyone. He hasn't risked running into anyone else, because there isn't anyone else around. So, given the goal of the law (the end, in our situation), it should be okay to run that rural stop sign at three in the morning. But because the law says running stop signs is illegal, whether there's anyone around to run into or not, it's the means we pay attention to -- completely ignoring or forgetting the original intent of the rule. The law has made the means paramount; it's running a stop sign that you're not supposed to do, when it should be running into other motorists that we should be avoiding. Once written into law, the means becomes the end.

This focus of rigidly enforcing a rule over thinking through a specific situation is endemic in our society. It's particularly onerous in the application of "three strike" and mandatory sentencing laws, which remove virtually all judgment from the judicial system. But blindly following a narrowly written rule is easy, so it appeals to the mental laziness that exists at all levels of our populace. What we need are not more laws and rules, but more thinking. Since thinking is harder than just following a rule, however, I don't hold much hope for progress.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Hey Mike, just let me know next time you plan to be out at 3AM so that I can stay home! Seriously, the rule exists for that one case in a million where there actually *is* someone else out there, right? It reminds me of that old joke: A guy is driving his friend around and keeps running red lights. His buddy asks him why he's doing that and he says "my brother does it all the time". Finally, he comes to a green light and stops dead. His buddy asks him why he's stopping. The guy says "hey, my brother might be coming the other way!"