Dividing Lines… and Judgment

What’s the difference between obtaining timely information, products and services and an obsession with instant gratification? Or between being able to obtain a hot meal quickly and suffering fast-food frenzy? Or being able to get in touch with family or job quickly and having an unseen cellphone umbilical cord that’s really a communications chain that leaves you at the mercy of everyone else?

For that matter, what’s the difference between a “reasonable” editorial and an editorial rant? Or a good book and a great one?

For a traffic cop, is it reasonable to ticket a driver going three miles an hour over the speed limit… or is the dividing line five or seven… or where the possible violation takes place? How many school assessment tests for pupils are too many? Or too few? Is it reasonable to apply the same standards for achievement to immigrant children as to upper middle class students?

For tax policy… who’s rich? Where are the dividing lines on income when lawmakers decide to increase or decrease taxes on the wealthy? How can they be fair when the cost of living differs so markedly from one part of the country to another?

For a publisher, how many copies of a first novel must be sold in order to consider buying an author’s second book? If the book is right on the edge of profitability, what tips the decision one way or the other?

All these questions aren’t meant to be examples of the unsolvable, but examples of the daily judgments people in all areas of life must make, one way or another… and what I’ve written touches the barest minimum of the complexity of human society and life. I’m doing this because, again, I tend to get tired of the proliferation of rules and laws that try to answer every single injustice or odd situation.

In the United States, in particular, we seem to have this idea that when there’s a wrong, another rule is just the thing to right it. Except… it doesn’t seem to work that way. The USA probably has more rules dealing with regulation of the financial sector than any nation on the face of the earth… and we’ve just created the biggest misuse of funds in human history by most likely the most corrupt [I didn’t say illegal, just corrupt, although some did break various laws] group of executives ever, at least in dollar terms, all of them trying to find “legal” ways to accomplish the unethical, and from what I can tell, not a single one ever asked whether what they were doing was “right.”

We have among the strictest laws against bribery of public officials, and yet during the past session, Congress enacted the greatest number of payoffs ever in U.S. history with public funds — through the entirely legal process of “earmarking” — often in response to perfectly legal, if significant, campaign contributions.

Recently, in a number of locations across the industrialized world, various cities have taken the step of removing speed limits, traffic lights, stop signs, and in some cases even sidewalks from streets. At first thought, this seems like a recipe for disaster… except average automobile speeds have dropped, as have fatalities and accidents. Apparently, when people have to use their judgment, rather than rely on rules blindly, they behave better.Part of that also might be that the “rebels” have nothing against which to rebel.

I bring this up because it’s an illustration, at least to me, of how the proliferation of laws and rules causes people to focus on legality rather than upon ethicality, and what can happen when people have to rely on their individual judgment. What if the law just declared that misrepresentation of facts to obtain funds constituted fraud, and the greater the misrepresentation and the greater the funds obtained, and the harm created, the greater the crime… and left the sentencing in cases where guilt was proven to the judge and jury?

Ah… but that wouldn’t work. We really can’t trust human judgment, and we need all those hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations and laws… don’t we?