The Accountability Distance and the Need for Regulation

The mortgage securitization debacle and the housing market meltdown illustrate a fundamental aspect of modern technological civilization: the loss of direct personal accountability that accompanies increasingly complex social, technical, and industrially-based cultures.

In a low-tech culture, if I purchase a hammer from the local smith, I know who forged it. If something goes wrong with the tool, there are essentially only two people who are accountable. Either the smith forged an inferior tool, or I used an adequate tool improperly. In such a setting, most of the time, it’s a fairly straight-forward process to determine responsibility and accountability. The same is true when cattle are grown and slaughtered in the same local village.

But… once these and almost all others processes become “industrialized,” who’s responsible when things go wrong… and how can any individual hold anyone accountable? The answer is that, without some sort of societal rules and regulations, with penalties, the individual can’t. The incredible abuses of the food processing industry in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century have been studied and documented in detail, and those abuses led to a range of government regulations and agencies… and many experts still feel that the oversight of the industry leaves much to be desired. The same problem led to environmental abuses and cities where the rivers literally caught fire… and even recently to children’s toys coated in lead paint.

Like it or not, human nature being what it is, all too many people who would not dare to shortchange their families or their neighbors face-to-face seem to have no compunctions about doing so in an industrial or technological society where they’re only a part of the process and where they are never personally held directly accountable.

In the mortgage mess, I doubt seriously that many, if any, mortgage lenders would have recommended that their institutions should keep the vast majority of the sub-prime loans that were bundled together and then sold to investors, especially not if their paychecks depended on the performance of those loans. Instead, all too many of the low-level originators were pressed, either directly or indirectly, to make as many loans as possible, because the originators had no sense of accountability, only the pressure to obtain high yields and fees.

For any society to continue to prosper, there has to be a high degree of accountability, and that accountability can either come from a societal tradition of honesty and responsibility, or from regulatory structures that force some accountability, or from a combination of both. In the end, however, regulation alone will fail, because unchecked human ingenuity and duplicity will force more and more regulations, to the point that the entire society becomes bound so tightly in bureaucracy that change and innovation become virtually impossible. On the other hand, with minimal or no regulation, and no cultural insistence on honesty and responsibility, human vices will destroy the trust and cooperation necessary to maintain a viable high-tech society.

So… any time you start complaining about those endless government regulations that seem to invade everything…you might consider why and how they developed.