We rely heavily on regulation and rules when trying to tackle individual and organisational misbehaviour. According to Mark Thriscutt FRSA, this breeds a victim culture and can be economically crippling. He argues for a more flexible approach, which emphasises personal responsibility.
Every society experiences conflicts between its interests and those of its individuals. Traditionally, appointed representatives enact laws that attempt to regulate individual behaviour, using the various powers of the state to ensure compliance. This quick fix attracts politicians under pressure to 'do something' following unacceptable eventualities, such as terrorism or environmental crises.
However, this approach has important limitations, which become progressively onerous in a rapidly changing and complex environment. A rule-based approach is a blunt instrument, suggesting simplistic black/white, right/wrong choices to a techni-coloured and nuanced situation.
Often, a patchwork of exemptions and conditions is applied to legislation to reflect this complexity, requiring specialised and expensive experts to find a way through this complexity; as anyone involved in tax, employment and many other areas of modern life can attest. This progressively raises the cost of compliance, with ever more regulators and enforcement officers to police this growing tangle of rules and regulations. It is however, the insidious and gradual psychological consequences of this approach that should be of particular concern, as these effects can be enduring and ultimately, economically crippling. This was often evident in the former Soviet countries, where the more socialist the previous regime, the more anti-social individual behaviour became. Excessive controls imposed by the state encourages an abrogation of personal responsibility and an attitude of unquestioning and unthinking acquiesce; ‘if I’ve followed the rules, then I can’t be blamed’. It encourages a willingness to pass the buck; ‘someone else is to blame’ or ‘the government should do something’.
This is a victim mentality, which a healthy society should wish to discourage. We have allowed progressively more state intrusion into our lives, to a level that would be unrecognisable and unacceptable to people 100 years ago. This may be state control by evolution rather than communist revolution, but eventually, the results are the same.
As anyone who has been subject to an audit by HMRC or the Heath and Safety Executive (HSE) will know, this approach also engenders a sense of fear: with such complexity, there is almost bound to be non-compliance somewhere. Consequently, businesses seek to protect themselves, causing extra bureaucracy and paperwork, adopting a siege mentality and an aversion to risk or change, diverting attention away from innovation and change.
Meanwhile, those questioning these rules and regulations are often viewed as troublemakers or rebels, dismissing their concerns about where this approach may ultimately lead us. The onus should instead lie on those restricting our freedoms to properly justify their position.
We should acknowledge the economic and psychological costs that the regulatory approach has on individuals, businesses and societies. A dual approach encouraging greater personal and social responsibility is needed. For example, making many legal obligations advisory instead, places the onus on individuals to tailor their behaviour to specific circumstances, regardless of what the law says, whilst knowing they may be required to justify whether their behaviour is considered ‘reasonable’ or not in front of a jury (representing society). The onus is placed on the individual to take responsibility to justify his actions if called upon to do so. This is self-adjusting as societal ‘norms’ evolve over time.
Frivolous cases could be discouraged by the losing party being required to pay for any prosecution costs (unless there is an important precedent at stake). Advocates would still be important for making the case for either side. However, it is the spirit of the law (society’s ‘norms’), rather than its letter, than needs to be determined. This could make the court system significantly less complex and expensive, thereby making it more accessible to the average person, than is currently the case. The level of test cases is likely to reduce rapidly as society settles into equilibrium, (which may be quite different to that set by current legislation). This process could start with the petty regulation and rules that we all encounter.
Engendering greater social responsibility is also important: individuals need to be encouraged to participate more in the way our society functions. Thus, individuals would be encouraged to question unreasonable or anti-social behaviour of others, rather than leaving this only to enforcement authorities. They could be encouraged to make a greater contribution to society, in effect paying their tax in kind, contributing a certain number of days per year towards recognised social causes.
Irresponsible or anti-social behaviour will always occur, whether rules exist to control it or not. But we need to move away from our current legislative, rule-based approach, to one that is more flexible, placing the responsibility firmly on the individual rather than on the state and its enforcement apparatus. We must recognise the consequences of the current approach on ourselves and our society before we end up buried under ever more onerous bureaucracy and a reluctance to innovate and evolve.
Since 1993, Mark Thriscutt has worked as an independent, international speaker, writer and trainer on governance and transport issues, for governments, private and public organisations and international donors. He has lived or worked in over 60 countries and is currently in Uganda.