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Should We Follow the Rules?

Entry 2035, on 2020-03-31 at 18:55:10 (Rating 3, News)

One of the most significant factors dividing people around the world today is the issue of the group versus the individual. Broadly speaking, the left tends to think more in terms of the group and the right - especially libertarians - emphasise the individual. I know this isn't always accurate, and left versus right itself can be an imprecise way to represent people's perspectives, but these will do for the purposes of this discussion.

Of course - as you will possibly have concluded from previous blog posts - I see merit in both approaches. So asking whether the left or the right are more correct is pointless, because they are both right and both wrong about different subjects. And asking whether the group should be supreme, or whether the individual counts for more is also pointless for the same reason. Finally, asking whether cooperation is better than competition is also an invalid question, because both are good in the right circumstances.

This, or course, relates to the current situation with the coronavirus epidemic. Individual rights are being severely restricted all over the world while limitations are put in place for the benefit of the group (that is, the population of the country involved, and of the world in general).

The degree to which freedoms are curtailed varies from one country to another, from substantial lockdowns like we have here in New Zealand, to more relaxed rules, like those in place in Australia, the US, and Sweden.

Sweden is an interesting case, which might show whether more draconian measures are justified. They have taken a more moderate approach, where primary schools are still operating buy high schools are closed, bars and restaurants can stay open as long as people are served at tables, etc. They also rely on people's common sense to maintain a distance from others to prevent the spread of the virus.

I value individual rights highly, and am naturally suspicious of state controls, especially the extreme but disorganised and haphazard measures we have seen here in New Zealand, but I'm not totally sure that this isn't one of those unusual situations where more extreme restrictions are necessary.

The epidemic situation reminds me in some ways of the way classic economics was supposed to predict and explain the behaviour of people in an economic system. The assumption was that people would act in a way which benefitted themselves the most, that they would be rational, and that they would make the effort to gather at least the minimal information needed to make good decisions.

But more recently behavioural economics has revealed how people do not act sensibly or predictably, so we cannot rely on that assumption, which might explain why economics always has had such a poor reputation amongst some people, and was seen as being barely a science at all, or of being the "dismal science".

So just telling everyone the facts, then having an expert explain the best course of action, then leaving people to act in the most rational way is unlikely to work. Which leaves "draconian" government imposed rules and regulations instead.

This approach has its own problems, apart from the simple fact that many people don't like being told what to do, especially when the new rules come from a government which is quite controversial and where it could be argued it should not be in power at all (as is the case here in New Zealand).

Politicians make political decisions. Those decisions are usually based on expert advice, but not always, and even when they are, the end result doesn't always completely reflect the underlying reality. And governments are giant bureaucracies, which don't have a reputation for making consistent, logical, and timely decisions.

But I think we should always take the best option for the time, even when that option is far from perfect. So in the current crisis we probably need to follow government rules, at least in general, because some of them don't make a lot of sense. But we shouldn't follow them blindly, we shouldn't report other people breaking them unless it is a particularly egregious case, and we should always listen to independent experts to see how well they agree with government proclamations.

So be skeptical, but don't just be a rebel for the hell of it. Just remember, science has shown that we aren't all very rational all of the time. Maybe, for the majority at least, it's easier just to follow the rules.


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