Opaque enforcement vs. unwritten rules

Harsh laws seem scary, but it’s worse when they’re opaquely interpreted and enforced.

I’m a big proponent of letting culture do the heavy lifting when it comes to restricting what people do. This means a lot of “unwritten rules,” which at first might seem contradictory to my one-liner there at the top, but actually isn’t.

When an unwritten cultural rule gets broken, it’s usually easy to correct your behavior and move on, and/or find a subculture where that unwritten rule doesn’t exist. You’re not going to end up being sued or fined or put in jail.

Example: you go into a restaurant and sit down at a random table that’s already occupied. The diners at that table will feel uncomfortable and they or someone from the restaurant staff may urge you to move to your own table, but unless you proceed to do something actually illegal like create a threatening disturbance the very worst that can happen to you is to be asked to get up and possibly to leave. It’s even very unlikely the restaurant would ban you from re-entering later.

Laws, on the other hand, are backed by the monopolistic violence of government. Being found guilty of breaking a law necessarily carries with it a real punishment, often one that stays on your permanent record. The good thing is these laws are made explicit and there are institutions designed to interpret and enforce them fairly.

The rules within a business are the same way. If a restaurant has a rule stating that each dining party is entitled to their own table and a sign on the front door making this rule known, then you can expect harsher treatment should you decide to sit down at a table that’s already occupied. This same principle is at play online, for example, when social media sites and forums state their codes of conduct and EULAs.

The scariest thing is when the methods of interpreting and enforcing codes of conduct and EULAs are opaque and seemingly arbitrary. It would be better to either make the interpretation/enforcement process transparent, or to do away with codes of conduct entirely. The latter would bring us back to the (more honest) cultural “unwritten rules” model.

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