Strictness Aids Hypocrisy

Long ago in traffic school the teacher asked us all how fast we’d gone over the speed limit.  The lowest answer was five miles an hour – it was a black resident of East Palo Alto who had been driving in Palo Alto. Many of us nodded knowingly. Palo Alto is a rich community with unusually low speed limits, and East Palo Alto was its poorer neighbor.  Many of us suspected that the Palo Alto police were especially vigilent against speeding violations by black visitors from East Palo Alto, and that especially low speed limits helped them to discourage East Palo Alto folks from visiting Palo Alto.

This illustrates a general principle: stricter rules typically enable more unequal rule enforcement. With excessively strict rules, more folks are willing to let rule enforcement slide sometimes, which creates a bigger difference in outcomes between folks who are liked vs. disliked by rule enforcers. Social groups with stricter rules need not discouarge ruled behaviors more; they may instead encourage more attention to connections and alliances to protect against rule enforcement. As in:

“Sure George technically violated the rules here, and yes he should suffer.  But George has already suffered so much, and strict enforcement of this rule would end his promising career and shame his whole family.  He’s learned his lesson, and could contribute so much more by staying in his position. Can’t we find it in our hearts to follow the spirit of the law, rather than the letter?”

My homo hypocritus hypothesis is that humans developed huge brains to manage the process of subtly evading social norms while pretending to fully support them. Since those who think themselves better at this process should favor stricter rules, people should prefer to seem to favor strict rules in order to show confidence in their abilities.  In this way the urge toward excessively strict rules may gain quite widespread support.

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  • The relevant characteristic here seems to be weak enforcement, not strict rules. Fuzzy standards let people punish low status people while giving high status people a pass, whereas objective well-enforced guidelines make it obvious when someone’s being unfairly punished.

    The relevant culture-war analogy is the right with strict but enforced rules and the left with loose rules and and ad-hoc enforcement. I have argued before that the cultural liberal position essentially leans towards laissez-faire social competition, while the cultural conservative position is analogous to progressive status taxation, as its strict transparent rules leave less room for the high-status to skirt the rules, while offering relative protection for the low-status from arbitrary “enforcement.”

  • blink

    I think of strict rules as forcing a pooling equilibrium. Without a rule, someone can signal high quality by abstaining from vice X. With a strict rule in place, many who previously engaged in X now give it up and those always abstaining from X are merely “following the law.” A religious leader made a similar argument against mandatory community service, even though he favored voluntary community service.

    Also, strict rules can serve as an “out” when things go wrong. For example, even if a speed limit is generally ignored, we have a ready excuse when there is an accident: the driver was speeding. In this way, we never have to admit to bad luck or events that are out of our control. The same applies to oil spills, contaminated food, etc.

  • Jon Redden

    The correlation with Government regulation also seems to support your idea.

  • mbk

    There are two separate types of cases where hypocrisy and selective enforcement are at work. Type one, strict rules that are flaunted by most, but where punishment is weak per case. Traffic violations are of this type but generally, enforcement is still the norm. Type two, draconian punishments and large discretionary power by enforcers, often in autocratic regimes, and associated with behaviors that are ubiquitous enough to make for a large class of offenders. In this case, it is far more likely that the rules are not enforced at all unless one needs a good reason to take a specific person out (in which case the reason is easy to find). Often these are about crimes of social behavior: sexual preferences are often the target, for instance.

    • Autocratic regimes? You mean like the US?

      Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent

      • mbk

        No question, the US has some very weird laws in some of its places, communal and state too, it’s not all federal by far. And democracy does not protect from totalitarian, illiberal laws (often, it encourages them). Usually though in the US there is not a lot of discretion for enforcers, so that all sorts of things get enforced that really should have been swept under the carpet. And this means that often, these are just bad laws but they’re not necessarily examples of selective (hypocritical, or really as it should be named, politically discriminatory) enforcement.

  • Scott H.

    What is the difference between a rule and a strict rule if not the enforcement?

    Your example seems to suggest a “strict rule” is a rule that is designed to be broken by nearly everyone — necessitating selective enforcement by resource constrained policing agencies. As soon as you have selective enforcement you have some kind of hypocrisy.

    I guess I would add to your observation that “strict rules” are necessary for authoritarian/totalitarian societies. This way everything can be controlled nicely. Under normal circumstances the rich and powerful get by fine and the chaotic poor are well controlled, but under duress the gov’t can bring ANYONE — rich or poor — before the law and prevail.

  • JL

    High profile Dutch example: Xenofobic Immigration minister Rita Verdonk took away the citizenship of a family of Iraqi refugees, because they lied about their name all those years ago when they sought asylum.

    When it was discovered that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee and member of the Dutch congress for the same party as Verdonk, had also lied on her asylum application a shit storm ensued, but Ali retained her Dutch passport.

    And indeed, along with rising xenofobic sentiments, immigration rules are being made more strict.
    At the moment the current Immigration minister wants to deport an Afghan family of asylum seekers to Afghanistan, even though the teenaged children are thoroughly westernized.
    In his own words, his heart goes out to these people. But rules are rules and need to be applied…

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  • It occurs that strict rules favor 3 populations not just two:
    (1) subtle rule evaders, like you point out
    (2) the high status and well connected, like you point out
    (3) those with deviantly high competence at rule compliance (and optimization), an actually existing population.

    I think a good chunk of President Obama’s defeat of Hon. Hillary Clinton in the Democrat primaries was a rule-based optimization advantage (think of Texas, for example).

    When we think of the elegant real time competitions between meritocratic and aristocratic populations, there seems to me to be an element of rule gamesmanship that ultimately favors a win by the meritocrats, at least in that generation.

  • MPS

    I’ve wondered about this w/r/t drug law enforcement. In CA, my impression is drug use broadly covers all demographics. Yet the demographics of those in prison for drug-related charges, to my impression, are much more restricted.

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  • Barry

    “The relevant culture-war analogy is the right with strict but enforced rules and the left with loose rules and and ad-hoc enforcement. ”

    The right has enforced rules? I see them as a prime example of higher status directly giving more open ability to break the rules with impunity.

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