Politely Criticizing Zen Pundit on Rule Sets

Rules, Rule Sets, and Social Systems,” by Mark Safranski, Rule Set Reset, February 2005, ppg 9-10, .

When I was in high school, a science teacher gave me Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to read. Kuhn broke down science into “normal science” – the boring yet important work or improving the precision of theories, and “revolutionary science” – the creation of new theories that change the “paradigm.” I was unimpressed, and handed in a review that attacked Kuhn on point after point. A few words in response by my instructor, and I was converted. I saw the book in an entirely new light, and often rely on it for philosophy-of-science arguments.

Similarly, a recent comment by Larry made me look at Mark Safranski’s article for the first Rule Set Reset in a new way. When I first read it, I agreed with all of it. But Larry’s remark made me read deeper and see much more meaning.

Thanking Larry for his comment, and Mark for writing in the first place, I offer my humble critique of Safranski’s “Rules, Rule Sets, and Social Systems: The Goldfish Bowl In Which We Swim.” Because his work is important, I am quoting his entire article and making comments where appropriate

Few of us would be comfortable living in a society without rules. Have you dealt with an incorrigibly antisocial colleague or attempted to control the actions of a two-year old? You might have caught yourself wishing you could create a few new rules of your own!

Taken together, the rules that govern a situation are known as a “rule set.” In human society, so powerful is the sense of psychological security provided by rule sets, so useful are they in creating predictable outcomes, that when we find ourselves societally adrift, like Robinson Crusoe, we quickly invent new ones.

Whether we’re talking about a nation-state or a family unit, societal rule sets function to structure a system, defining proper procedures and their anticipated outcomes. The rule set is a system’s “genetic code” that transfers a system’s characteristics and its values to its constituents. Understanding societal rule sets, therefore, is fundamental to understanding a social system.

My first comment is just an aside. When I wrote the simulation for my thesis, A Computer Model of National Behavior, I assigned genetic code to nations. However, I used the more simplistic categories of “aggressiveness,” “health,” and so on. Modeling genetic rule-sets would be fascinating.

How clearly a human society communicates its expectations to its members, in terms of procedures and core values, is measured by its place on an articulation continuum. On this continuum, rule sets can be explicit or implicit. In a complex system, just as in a nation-state, explicit and implicit rule sets coexist.

Explicit rule-set systems are highly formal, emphasizing uniformity of procedure, objectivity, neutrality, and attention to precedent. Literacy is a prerequisite for explicit, objective rules. The emergence of explicit rule sets like the Code of Hammurabi had to wait until a societal elite mastered the art of writing. Explicit rule sets are often the province of the State through the many organizations – unions, churches, professional groups, schools, corporations, fraternal orders, and so forth – that maintain codes of conduct and bylaws.

I’m not sure why Mark says explicit rule sets have to be written. “Explicit” means “said,” and it seems tht any rule that has to be “said” would qualify as “explicit.”

By making literacy a requirement for explicit rule sets, Mark rules them out for most of the human experience. For example, Islamic Sharia is a very explicit rule set that normally is strongest where literacy is weakest. Other tribes can have very specific memorized sets of rules without the benefit of writing.

Implicit rule-set systems are older, subtler, and often more powerful than explicit rule-set systems. They are subjective, intuitively understood, flexible, vaguely defined, and opaque to outsiders and novices alike. Unwritten and often unspoken as well, implicit rule sets may deal with status, tradition, group affinity, and personal identification.

A problem with this definition is that it doesn’t fully complement the definition of explicit. What to make of a new, glaring, and weak unwritten rule? What to make of an old, subtle, and powerful written rule? Much of Jewish law would be in the latter category, many “PC” restrictions on speech are in the former.

Japanese corporations, for example, may have ultramodern quality control and finance procedures, but deference to age and seniority play enormous parts in the interpersonal dynamics of Japanese management. From the depth of one’s bow to the order in which participants engage in a discussion, senior-junior obligation relationships are governed by the implicit rule-set of Japanese culture. Even newer institutions with a younger heritage will develop a particular outlook and habits of mind not to be challenged lightly. It means something to be a Marine or a Rhodes Scholar, a Harvard man or a Teamster: at the level of personal identify, each adheres to a different implicit rule set. Yet all adhere to higher-level rule sets, also, as – in this case – Americans. Individuals are subject to and sustain multiple rule sets as part of their complex identities.

An aside: Mark’s definition of “rule sets” seem very close to my definitions of “controls.” Thoughts?

The danger of “value rivalry” threatens explicit rule sets. An explicit rule set can be undermined by implicit rules and values that are antithetical, that encourage destructive behavior. Nowhere in Enron’s official corporate policies were theft, lying, and financial fraud formally endorsed – in fact, they were probably decried in its official documents – but Enron’s implicit rule-set rewarded hyper-aggressive executives and punished those who played by the explicit rules. Such a conflict is typical of a dysfunctional rule set that characterizes a system at risk of decline.

Does it also characterize changing, dynamic systems? Perhaps such conflicts are typical of all rule sets (“controls”) in systems that are in a hyper-competitive environment rather than just those at risk of decline.

The degree to which a system can ensure compliance with its rule sets, by administering consequences, we call the enforcement continuum. On this continuum, enforcement of rule sets can be classified as strong or weak.

Here’s an interesting distinction between Mark’s “rule-sets” and my “controls.” I said that controls themselves can be strong or weak, while Mark talks about the enforcement of controls being strong or weak. Interesting.

When they challenge implicit or explicit rules, rule-breakers face consequences. Systems featuring strong enforcement respond immediately to rule-set infractions with severe punishments of reasonable certainty.

Not proportionate punishments of reasonable certainty? The Eisenhower administration developed a national defense based on severe retaliation. After the publication of The Uncertain Trumpet, however, Kennedy developed a system of proportionate response. The shift was because mandated severe retaliation was unworkable, because it would strain the “enforcer” too much.

Those with weak enforcement do not respond to infractions or do so incompetently. Either the system itself is sick and stretched thin by too many competing claims, or it has made a deliberate policy choice. To intentionally ignore criminal behavior as defined by law, to appease enemies, to fail to maintain order in the face of gross violations or violence, may be a partial repudiation of a prevailing rule set by the system’s own leaders.

In what way can a system be “deliberate”? I do not know if Mark is suggesting intelligent control of the system, or if the system reacts as if it is intelligent.

Arrayed in a 2 x 2 matrix, these continuums create social systems we may call Totalitarian (Strong-Explicit), Communal (Strong-Implicit), Individualist (Weak-Explicit), and Anarchic (Weak-Implicit). Social systems are dynamic and over time a particular system may shift position within a quadrant.

Using somewhat different concepts, I looked at horizontal and vertical controls and horizontal and vertical freedom. The major difference between us seems to be in shades. Specifically, Mark’s “individualist” shouldn’t be confused with one allowing for the most individual freedom. Because so many of its rules are implicit, communal societies give more vertical freedom to individuals than individualist ones. Therefore, a libertarian paradise would be a communal society.

Individualist social systems like the United States function relatively well with minimalist sets of rules with a high degree of legitimacy (“buy-in”): many aspects of the rule set are actually self-enforcing. Their constraints appeal to mutual self-interest. Traffic laws are an example of a simple rule set with high voluntary compliance. An Individualist system produces a highly economical social order. In the few instances where the U.S. has deviated from this model (e.g., Prohibition in the 1920s and the “war on drugs” today), the results have been disastrous. Buy-in has been lacking. Failed attempts at overly strong enforcement only make the infractions more attractive and profitable.

An aside: a reason that traffic laws have such high voluntary compliance is that they are (to an extent) also horizontal controls — they are also in the horizontal rule set. Just as driving 100 km/h in the wrong lane is illegal (against vertical control), it is also viewed as “strange” (against horizontal control).

Communal and Totalitarian systems differ primarily in their reliance on violence to enforce rule sets. Communal systems, like Afghanistan’s, are often bound by horizontal rule sets: tribal societies operating within the implicit rule set have a high degree of legitimacy. Shared values are maintained by socially approved acts of private violence against transgressors. Black markets among organized crime syndicates are another example of the Communal model. A more benevolent variant is European social democracy and especially Scandinavian culture, which encourages and rewards commendable, socially beneficial behavior with quiet but pervasive social approval.

This is a case of an overarching horizontal society possessing many miniature vertical societies. In Afghanistan pre-modern political networks are vertical — they use violence to function. So even though “Afghan culture” is horizontal, the families, clans, and tribes are vertical.

Mb to enforce rule sets that cover most spheres of public life. Unlike Communal societies, which are stable and admit little change over centuries, Totalitarian systems are unstable, rigid, and economically wasteful.

What about cultures like North Korea, which (according to reports) are descending into gang-lawlessness with the army removing itself from police work and focusing on political enemies? Pyongyang is very totalitarian, but does not possess a monopoly on violence.

The Soviet Union lasted only three generations; Maoist China, only two; and the Third Reich and the Qin dynasty’s Legalist regime, only one. It’s a common tenet among political scientists that authority vanishes the moment it’s used. Totalitarian systems collapse inherently, but if their implicit rule sets compensate, they can endure over time, as did the Roman Empire.

My knowledge of legalism is laughably small — about everything comes from its parable in Xenocide by Orson Scott Card. In my understanding, legalism was defined by a fanatical belief in the rule of law. Is that not an opposite of totalitarianism?

I’m not sure that the Roman Empire was totalitarian. Because of the limited communication system, regional governors and commanders exercised broad control. At what point was the Roman Empire “totalitarian”?

Anarchic systems are significant in failed states and among lynch mobs. The State is incapable of protecting itself, much less enforcing rule sets, as the very mores of society disintegrate. Anarchy represents the failure of rule sets.

Special-pleading claims by parties protecting self-interest or seeking advantage occur in every system. The consistency with which such biased appeals are rejected is a good indicator of a social system’s rule-set stability and its health. When a system begins to cater to illegitimate demands, openly or in secret, the system is in decline.

Bribery is an old method of horizontal control. Special-pleading complements a system’s power when its rejection or acceptance is defined by the power and nature of the special pleaders, and not their “legitimacy.”

Who defines legitimacy? How do we characterize warring social rule sets? Legitimacy, in a Lockean vein, derives from the consent of the governed, expressed in a variety of ways: consensus and voluntary obedience, formal procedures to ratify societal approval, and acceptance of the moral/ethical premises of the prevailing rule sets in everyday, informal situations. Special-pleading claims are judged illegitimate because they seek to carve out illogical exceptions to the rule-set in contrast with what are perceived to be logical, necessary, and ethically harmonious exceptions. Warring social rule sets produce a dysfunctional state of affairs.

Do any Afghan warlords possess legitimacy? Mark’s argument implies not.

Rule sets often (some would say, always) outlive the era for which they were created and no longer fit current conditions. Instead of regulating the system, the rule set’s effects are to multiply or worsen problems. It is then time to “Reset the Rule Set” via evolution or revolution. The United States reset the global rule set after WWII by creating the UN, Bretton Woods, NATO, and the IMF to replace the former systems of protectionism and imperialism that resulted in two cycles of economic gyrations and world wars.

This made me wonder the manner in which rule sets evolve. If they evolve as described by Darwin, evolution is constant and a rule-set cannot be “reset” by evolution alone. On the other hand, if rule-sets evolved in punctuated equilibria, the comment is more accurate.

There is a personal dimension to rule sets. If the society in which one lives is following its normal procedures, yet its outcomes are perceived to be meaningless or counterproductive, then the rule set probably must go. This may be one of those times.

Thanks for the fantastic article, Mark! Sorry it took so long to understand it!

One thought on “Politely Criticizing Zen Pundit on Rule Sets”

  1. Hey Dan,

    Wow ! Thanks for delving into my article so deeply ! Due to the late hour and complexity of your review I’m going to have to answer at length in a post on Zenpundit ( No doubt, much to the delight of Larry who quizzed me in the letters section of RSR # 2)

    On one point though I have to say that calling the Roman Empire ” totalitarian” was one of Bob Jacobson’s late edits. He probably was thinking in terms of Diocletian’s ” reformed” empire rather than say, Marcus Aurelius or Augustus – but I would have to agree with you that the term is a poor fit regardless

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