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"Rules, Rules, Rules" - the friction caused by the total number of rules.
Sub section index:
   Helpful rules
   Hurtful rules
   Why are some rules and laws hurtful?
   The challenge created by RMO's (Rule Making Organizations)
Rules, whether they are laws established by a Legislature (a long process) or simple rules enacted by a Bureaucracy are both helpful and hurtful.

Helpful rules
Basic (core) rules (and laws) like:
  • "Drive on the right side of the road"
  • "Don't steal things from other people"
  • "110 Volt electrical circuits are dangerous, protect them with a circuit breaker"

Are helpful. They have relatively low cost to follow and enforce and readily save lives and property. When I think about helpful rules, I am thinking of things we all agree to. They tend to apply and impact citizens in a broad, universal way.

Hurtful rules
These are rules (and laws) that are increasingly specific, increasingly obscure, and impact smaller and smaller subsets of the population. Some examples are:
  • If you have a large enough yard, You are allowed to have a second dwelling on the property. The second dwelling may be 1,500 square feet, but 1,501 square feet is prohibited. This is true regardless of how large your yard is.
  • Donkeys cannot sleep in bathtubs. (Arizona)
  • You can deduct the interest you pay on up to $750,000 in mortgage debt. In order to be eligible, a “home” has to have sleeping, cooking and toilet facilities, which can be a mobile home, trailer or boat. If your primary home is paid off, you could deduct the mortgage interest on a yacht instead.

Why are some rules and laws hurtful?
Every single rule adds to the cost of enforcing rules. As rules become increasingly specific (they apply to smaller and smaller portions of the population) the cost of having, printing, learning, and enforcing the total set of rules goes up relative to the value of each rule. This is the straw that broke the camel's back problem. It was not the last straw that actually broke the back of the camel, it was the cumulative effect of all the rest of the straw. The last one gets the attention and we forget about all the prior straws.

The US Tax code might be a good example. The US Tax code is rather complex. When printed, it is more than 6,000 pages (12 reams of paper, a stack 24 inches tall) for the rules, and then 15,000 pages of explanation and interpretation of the rules (30 reams of paper, 60 inches tall) makes 42 reams of paper 7 feet tall. There are more than 200 special provisions, with 100 added or amended in the last the4e years. In 2022 , Americans spent about 6.5 BILLION hours trying to do taxes and it cost the economy about 300 BILLION DOLLARS in lost productivity every year. Questions to the IRS to figure out how to do taxes resulted in 173 MILLION telephone calls in 2022. As the number of rules increases the IRS is less and less able to answer the telephone to help people figure out how much tax they owe. IN 2022 the IRS answered about 13% of the calls that came in.

It takes longer ands costs more more money do do things like get building permits as the number of rules increases.

The complexity acts as a brake. It slows things down, requires resources (time, mental energy and money) and as the complexity of the rule set grows, the braking effect becomes greater.

The challenge created by RMO's (Rule Making Organizations)
Whether it is the local HOA, Congress, your local building department or the local municipality, these organizations are wired to do one thing: "Write more rules".

When citizens complain, when something goes badly, the public response is "Do something!

Sadly, folks do not take the time to as to "Do something helpful", or "Do something that makes life simpler".

A couple of decades ago a car crash in a residential neighborhood destroyed a nicely restored classic Camaro. A public meeting followed where (a few) citizens demanded STOP signs be placed at the intersection to "Do something". A quiet, gentle Traffic Engineer pointed out that nearby intersections had STOP signs that were being ignored. Also that traffic studies indicate that as you install more and more STOP signs in a small area, the number of people actually stopping at any of the STOP signs goes down. Over the course of about 20 years, as I walked the neighborhood, I noticed that only a few cars actually stopped at the STOP signs.

Sadly, Rule-making organizations tend to be rewarded for thinking up new rules rather than understanding the impact of existing rules.

RMOs have no charter to erase rules. Congress has committees, but none of them spend their time looking for rules to erase.

As a result, the number of rules grows every year and at some point, we will spend all our time understanding and trying to comply with rules and we will have no time to work and earn the money to pay our way.

Another observation: as the number of STOP signs increase, as the number of rules grows, smart people find ways to get around the rules. Not stopping is one example but that is not the only one. The proliferation of rules tends to adversely impact the subset of the population that follows rules because is is right and honorable to follow rules. As you write more and more rules, another subset of people become less and less respectful of rules, and follow only the ones that are likely to be detected and punished. The Civility Grouch wonders if we see less civility because civility is increasingly enforced through laws and rules, and decreasingly through kindness toward other people.

The Civility Grouch wonders when we will collapse under the weight of our rules.

It is more difficult to write a few good (core) rules than it is to write a million "fix it" rules.

In computer software, we find that as applications live long lives, they become increasingly complex as bits of code are added to fix this or that special condition. The code execution slows down and requires more and more compute power to run it. Sometimes, if someone has the time to re-think the entirety of the problem, with the benefit of hindsight, highly complex applications can be greatly simplified. It requires some tradeoffs, but usually the benefit outweighs the cost.

We readily see complexity after rounds and rounds of new rule additions. If we stop and think about it, some of the complexity might not be worth the friction it causes.

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