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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