The Beauty of Bending Rules in a Complex World

Why pool attendants are better than bureaucrats

“We’re not checking IDs today,” the pool attendant told me.

We have a nice pool for the neighborhood, maintained with HOA dues. The homeowners association has tried different methods of monitoring who comes in to keep nonresidents from filling up the pool and squeezing out dues-paying members. A few times last summer, this was a problem. This year, a new company was hired to issue IDs and ensure that only residents use the pool. But not today.

Today the water was a bit cold and the pool wasn’t busy. The attendant realized this and didn’t hassle swimmers and sunbathers with an ID check. When he uttered those words it hit me in a flash just how profound it was. The ease with which he used common sense to bend the rules was a beautiful moment. Maybe you think I’m being dramatic, but let me offer a contrast.

A few years, ago I was in the security line at the airport with my wife. She removed her plastic baggy of size-approved liquids and gels and placed it in the container. The TSA agent picked it up and grunted, “Uh-uh.” Bewildered, I asked what the problem was. She said my wife needed to remove an item from the bag. I objected that every item was within the approved size and the bag was a recommended part of the procedure. The agent said that, according to regulations, the items are supposed to fit “comfortably” in the bag. They were pushing against the sides, ever so slightly stretching the plastic. We had to remove one. I asked her which individual item was a threat to security. She told us it didn’t matter which item was removed. The absurdity of the situation was beyond parody. There is no conceivable world in which a too-snug plastic bag of harmless toiletries could pose any possible threat to security. But it was the rule. Every bureaucrat knows rules must be followed without question.

If you’ve ever gotten a speeding ticket, as I have, for going 10 over at 3:00 a.m. on a five-lane road with no traffic, or for running a red light in a sleepy town with no cars for miles, you’ve felt the same. It’s clear that the reason for the rule — to keep drivers and pedestrians safe — is no possible explanation for its enforcement in these situations. Indeed, enforcement itself makes roads less safe due to police vehicles sticking out into the road and blocking other potential drivers. Meter maids handing out tickets for 2 minutes over in a lot surrounded by empty spaces is just as crazy. Parking meters and tickets are there to ensure spaces are available in high-demand times. What’s the point of ticketing when ample parking is available? Carding geriatrics for buying alcohol and so very many other examples of this silliness abound.

I posted a complaint to Facebook after the TSA incident. One of the commenters said, “Sure, following the letter of arbitrary laws in bad contexts is a pain, but would you rather have those agents doing whatever they want and using their own discretion on the spot?” The question becomes more poignant when you consider not just the bureaucrats armed with bad attitudes like those at the DMV but the ones armed with guns on the police force. Rule following is paramount in a bureaucracy because the alternative is also frightening.

It’s easy in the public sphere to get caught up in such debates. Is it more practical and just for government agents to use discretion in the moment when applying regulations, or for across-the-board universal application? It seems vexing: a problem without a solution. Whatever side of the debate you take feels uncomfortable. The letter of the law is oppressive and in some cases downright crazy, certainly counterproductive with respect to the law’s intended purpose; but discretion is a scary proposition as well, as many cases of selectively enforced law attest.

Outside of government, however, this is a nonproblem. When something is moved from the private, voluntary sphere to the public, coercive sphere, debates and division arise where none previously existed. The real problem is not rule following or flexibility; it’s monopoly. The absence of competition in the government sphere and all the attendant incentive problems create this unnecessary quandary.

It’s not that the police officers and TSA agents are worse people than my pool attendant; it’s that they face worse incentives. There is no metric for them to determine customer satisfaction or the value of their actions, because there is no profit-and-loss signal and no fear of losing our business. We are legally obliged to pay for and receive their service (or disservice.)

The pool attendant can be flexible with the rules when applying them strictly would annoy customers. He can become stringent when things get busy and residents complain about freeloaders. His company knows that at any time, they could lose the contract, and the only reason they are hired is to make residents happy and solve a problem. It’s the outcome that matters, and all procedures, policies, and rules are measured against that. This leaves ample room for experimentation and adaptation, with immediate feedback and accountability.

The public sector has no such flexibility because it faces no competition. The political sphere can make social and economic problems that have already been solved with incredible nuance seem unsolvable. It offers only yes-or-no, either/or, once-and-for-all-and-everywhere solutions, applied and enforced by people with almost limitless job security. It is a blunt tool, and incredibly unresponsive. It is unconcerned with outcomes and measures effectiveness only by inputs, intentions, and actions — not results.

Whether the letter of the law or individual discretion is preferable is the wrong question. Both are to be feared with state monopolized services. Neither is to be feared in competition because the choice is no longer binary but an ongoing dance of pluralistic discovery.

We’re not checking IDs today. Those five simple words reveal the beauty, complexity, and humanity of the voluntary market order.

Further Reading

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