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The difficulty of governing a society in any detail

Summary:
Three little stories from just one issue of one newspaper: Shell is planning to finally scrap the complicated Anglo-Dutch structure that critics say has been a drag anchor for years.It would shift the firm’s centre of gravity decisively from The Hague to London, completing a process started in 2005.The second:The Church of England is facing questions over its role in converting hundreds of asylum seekers, including the Liverpool suicide bomber, to Christianity in an attempt to help them avoid deportation.The third:Female prisoners should not be forced to live with “big, brute rapists who have decided to identify as women”, a former minister has said.Dutch law places significant barriers to stock repurchases through the dividend tax imposed in that country. Folks can - and do, obviously -

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Three little stories from just one issue of one newspaper:

Shell is planning to finally scrap the complicated Anglo-Dutch structure that critics say has been a drag anchor for years.

It would shift the firm’s centre of gravity decisively from The Hague to London, completing a process started in 2005.

The second:

The Church of England is facing questions over its role in converting hundreds of asylum seekers, including the Liverpool suicide bomber, to Christianity in an attempt to help them avoid deportation.

The third:

Female prisoners should not be forced to live with “big, brute rapists who have decided to identify as women”, a former minister has said.

Dutch law places significant barriers to stock repurchases through the dividend tax imposed in that country. Folks can - and do, obviously - get around that simply by leaving.

Apostasy is a crime carrying the death penalty in certain Muslim countries and the end result can be informally applied in some other majority Muslim places. Apostasy as a method of not being sent back to such places can have its attractions.

Rules about gender and prison places can be gamed - so, they are.

Our point is not that any of these rules are incorrect. Nor that there don’t have to be rules in such areas. If there’s corporate taxation then there must be rules about what corporate taxes are. If a distinction is to be made between an asylum seeker and an economic migrant then rules about which is which have to exist. If the prison estate is split along gender (or sex, use whichever word you prefer) lines then rules there have to be over the definition of gender (or sex) suitable for each part of that prison estate.

Our point is that any such rules will be gamed or avoided over time. Simply because that’s what we humans out here do. We look at the rules constricting us and plot our slides through the thickets. This means that any attempt to rule a society in any detail fails.

For once that path that may be slid along is identified, here comes another rule to block it, then another iteration of exploration, another set of rules, avoidance, rule and so on until:

However, it was during his travels that Mr Koenig realised “just what a source of distress it was to our country.”

“These are not just anecdotal tales of paperwork but something much deeper about the way the state is structured. France remains highly Jacobin - very centralised, interventionist and dirigiste,” he said.

“It belies a lack of trust in the individual whose every move is micromanaged. That creates a huge sense of mistrust among citizens against the powers that be and has seen France descend slowly into a sweet anarchy where nobody respects the rules as they are no longer intelligible.”

Yes, of course it’s possible to make cheap jibes about how none of us actually want to become French. But this is the end result of such stultifying rule making - everyone ignores them. One of us spent considerable time in the late Soviet Union and its aftermath and life was lived in the interstices of those all encompassing rules. Just everything was approached from the aspect of well, here are the rules, so we obviously don’t do any of that and how do we slide by them?

The detailed governance of tens of millions of people just isn’t possible because people are, well, they’re people. They’ll game any such system and the greater the clampdowns the more they’ll - we’ll - ignore the rules as a whole.

That is, the old British system of having few specific rules, a few general principles and enforcement only of the important stuff actually does work. To the annoyance of would be rule makers, papershufflers and clipboard wielders everywhere.

That that’s also a description of a free and liberal society is a useful coincidence but it is that, a coincidence. It’s the system that actually works is the point we want to get across here.

Governments need to rule lightly to rule successfully.

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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