The Regulatory Impulse: How Far Do We Trust Our Fellow Human Beings?

The Regulatory Impulse: How Far Do We Trust Our Fellow Human Beings? February 1, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. This one comes from The Guardian, Jason Hickel’s opinion piece titled “Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong.” In it, Hickel argues that, although a body of neoliberal rhetoric claims a reduction of poverty over the last 200 years, this claim is based on a false premise. Namely, it takes as its starting point the idea that people with no income within traditional capitalist economies are intrinsically destitute. It therefore measures success by the number of people now making at least $1.90-USD-per-day (the poverty threshold) within formal economies. What it doesn’t factor in, according to Hickel, is that many of these people had more stability before regulatory practices took away natural land and resources, and made worker-consumers out of vast swathes of humanity.

He also notes that $1.90-USD-per-day is an “obscenely low” standard for not living in poverty, writing that

Scholars have been calling for a more reasonable poverty line for many years. Most agree that people need a minimum of about $7.40 per day to achieve basic nutrition and normal human life expectancy, plus a half-decent chance of seeing their kids survive their fifth birthday. And many scholars, including Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, insist that the poverty line should be set even higher, at $10 to $15 per day.

So what happens if we measure global poverty at the low end of this more realistic spectrum – $7.40 per day, to be extra conservative? Well, we see that the number of people living under this line has increased dramatically since measurements began in 1981, reaching some 4.2 billion people today. Suddenly the happy Davos narrative melts away.

We talk about the world being a complicated place, one with intricate problems requiring intricate solutions. And certainly, the details of implementing specific policies to accommodate all relevant needs are intricate.

But sometimes talk of complexity can obscure simpler, if also far broader issues–and one of our most fundamental, as agents in the human collective, is the value we place on competing forms of regulation. That value informs how we measure human well-being. It affects how we talk about specific issues like end-of-life care, reproductive health (including abortion), education, and nation-state security. And, of course, it shapes our approach to economic justice.

Today I want to talk about that regulatory impulse as it relates to socio-economic outcomes… but this is a difficult subject to enter into without getting distracted by specific models of, say, capitalism or socialism. What I’m talking about runs deeper than either ideology, though, because in some ways both capitalism and socialism are on the same side of the spectrum: the side that says we must organize, and regulate, and control. Capitalism does this by securing property against redistribution by the State. Socialism does this by securing property through redistribution by the State. And both have weaknesses that can lead to the exploitation of state resources for individual gains.

More importantly, though, both rely on regulatory practices, all the better with which to monitor competing notions of human progress: income levels, workforce participation rates, citizen scores.

What does that reliance on regulated economies also tell us about ourselves?

Remembering the Waters in Which We Swim

Growing up in a highly regulatory culture, I remember being staggered by the realization that this was just one way to live. I was a young teen watching a documentary (the name now escapes me) on what seemed at the time an up-and-coming way to live ethically within Western capitalism: namely, by supporting “fair-trade” goods.

But the documentary wasn’t extolling the virtues of fair-trade; rather, it pointed to new struggles emerging in this industry. Using African coffee-growers as an example, it pointed to the fact that many farmers did not have deeds to their land, let alone official business registration. As such, they needed to enter into a new world of regulation in order to compete in international markets. This presented a staggering learning curve, sharply diminished the communal nature of working the land, and also siphoned off significant profits to feed the bureaucratic machine. Families that had fluidly held land in the past now had strict limitations on ownership, and if the title-holder died it could be difficult for family lacking formal papers to continue in good standing. Moreover, the level of communal investment in working a given plot of land lessened with the rise of formal proprietary relationships–while the territorial conflicts increased, creating sharp divides of winners and losers in the new economy with thin profit margins.

So why take part in this new system at all? Because fair-trade markets were supposed to create balance in the wake of free-trade. Because if someone else is successfully monopolizing a given industry through an increase of bureaucratic business practices, then for everyone else to play the game they need to become administratively savvy, too.

This blew my wee mind, but didn’t significantly impact my day-to-day life–because I continued living in the same society, with considerable financial pressures that kept me worried about playing the game well. As such, I bought into quite a few ideas along the way that tend to be marketed as similar release valves. Most recently, for instance, I was made to realize that I’d been hoodwinked by microfinancing–not so far removed from fair-trade practices, really!–which was initially presented as a way to alleviate poverty but instead has been used to broaden the victim-base for predatory loans.

But What’s the Alternative?

It was only when I moved to Colombia, and again confronted the reality of other ways of living, that I remembered the problem with measuring societal health by levels of financial income and market participation. Here, many families in rural areas are “poor” by financial measures, but since they live on fincas with year-round fruit-bearing trees, they can easily get by on maybe one family member working outside the home, while the others raise pigs and chickens, and various crops often sold roadside. And by “get by”, I mean that such homes–rich in communal purpose–create many a contented life.

Indeed, Colombia’s labour force is largely off-the-books, with some 40-50% (depending on the study) not formally salaried. To some, this is horrifying, because without formal salaries Colombians have no hope of paying into a pension for their old age. (And even for the folks who are salaried, pensions are not guaranteed, as I discovered during my first year when made an “Independent Labourer” by my company.) Thus, the model almost requires a familial safety net, because in the absence of guaranteed state income, one’s children and siblings become your retirement plan instead.

You’ll note, too, that the idyllic Colombian family homestead is not easy to transplant to other parts of the world. Families in countries with seasons have to work much harder to ensure enough stored through the winter to survive outside the formal economy. And yet… they did, for centuries! And some still do today, like the northern-Russian community centred in Werner Herzog’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010). Moreover, our free-range ancestors seem to have experienced significant benefits in the process. As noted in a 2013 article cheerfully titled “Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you,” even amid the drudgery of famine, disease, and warfare there seems to have been a solid run of anywhere from eight weeks to half a year in vacations produced by Church holidays and major-life-event celebrations.

Secular vs. Religious Regulation

So let’s talk, then, about the dangerous myth that secularization from god-belief somehow frees us from some of religion’s underlying pressures. There are some who believe that humans can’t help it: we love oversight, we respond better when it feels as though we’re being watched, so we’re going to buy into systems that keep us regulated no matter what mythology is attached. (Certainly, here in Colombia, where statues of the Virgin Mary are everywhere, I can’t help but wonder if all our research about the impact of public faces–digital or cut-out–on crime reduction is a little behind the game.)

Anyone who has ever used a FitBit or similar tracking device recognizes this regulatory thrill, but as a mammalian species only a few decades into the use of digital technology, and only a few centuries into rigid industrial economies, do we really have a lock on their greater impact? Whether we live in a socially democratic nation where bylaws exist for practically everything, and every industry requires an immense amount of certification for participation… or a highly plutocratic nation, where money is equivocated with speech and used to ensure lax consumer protectionism to leverage every last penny from an overworked general population through the “free” market… have we secular folk forgotten that monitoring is not an intrinsic part of the cosmos?

What Scares Us About The Lack of Oversight?

Abortion, oddly enough, is an issue that’s helped me recognize this nervousness about a lack of direct oversight–and more importantly, our inconsistent application of that nervousness to policy-planning across different cultures and portfolios.

Canada, after all, is a country without legal restrictions on abortion, which means that abortion happens in lockstep with cultural norms. And oh, how terrifying that must be for those who think that women are just raring to carry nearly to term, then terminate at a day less than nine months. If there’s no law against it, why wouldn’t they, right?

Except that… cultural norms by and large do work in the Canadian context. From the University of Ottawa’s 2015 fact page on the subject, here’s what cultural norms (i.e. the most up-to-date science regarding fetal viability outside the womb, plus comprehensive sex-ed and access to contraceptives) have produced as an approach to abortion:

Over 90% of abortions in Canada are done in the first trimester; only 2-3% are done after 16 weeks, and no doctor performs abortions past 20 or 21 weeks unless there are compelling health or genetic reasons. The risk of maternal mortality is probably greater in carrying a pregnancy to term (7.06 per 100 000 live births) than the risk associated with abortion (0.56 per 100 000 terminations) (Grimes D. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2006; 194: 92-94).

But! But how? Surely without direct government oversight, everything is permitted, and since everything is permitted everything awful will come to pass?

Oh, wait, I’m among secular folks. We know that line’s a bunch of cockamamie bull, only a little less creepy than the “Thanks for sharing your inner serial killer!” rhetoric of “But without God, what’s to keep us from raping and murdering?”

…Or do we?

Because I am fully in favour of allowing cultural norms to dictate abortion practices in a well-informed country like Canada, but here in Colombia, even though the law technically permits abortion under extreme circumstances like rape and risk to the mother’s life, it has been immensely difficult to set up actual clinics for these procedures in this highly Catholic culture.

So… shouldn’t I be in favour of the state imposing regulations to protect vulnerable women from this cultural norm? Especially since it’s infuriating to see Catholics prefer a higher abortion rate on principle, rather than support policies that actually reduce abortion in the first place?

The Partiality Problem with Our Regulatory Impulse

I’ve written repeatedly in this column about our dangerous predilection towards groupthink. When it comes to economic justice, I favour state redistribution of excess wealth to bolster social safety nets and improve general human welfare. I also tend to think that the protection of individual life matters more than the protection of corporate interests. So, yes, I am 100% vulnerable to the regulatory impulse, and to expecting rigorous state oversight to be a perfect answer to human ills.

Yet I have also seen counterpoints, both in Canada’s approach to abortion and in rural, family-oriented models for the construction of self-sustaining communities. And these give me pause. I’ve cautioned before against binary thinking, so rest assured I’m not suggesting that we should fly willy-nilly into the world of predations that could also arise in human systems with minimal oversight.

What I am suggesting, though, is that we need to think carefully about the underlying trust issues in our regulatory impulse. In relation to which issues does it most frequently arise? Do we stump for increased regulation when it comes to economic justice, or criminal justice, or environmental justice, or the maintenance of communal order through police and military?

And if not for all of those, why not for all of those? What are the cultural factors that allow us to trust our fellow human beings in some policy spheres more than others?

Because maybe we’re wrong–maybe we shouldn’t be trusting our fellow human beings in certain domains. Maybe billionaires gonna billionaire! But we won’t know until we confront the assumptions underlying our lack of regulatory impulse.

Or maybe we’re right–maybe we can trust our fellow human beings more in certain domains than others. And if so… if there are cultural factors that make this trust both possible and reasonable… can we nurture those same cultural factors in other policy sectors as well?

No perfect answers, folks. Only tools for further, personal consideration. So tell me, fellow humanists: Where is your regulatory impulse strongest? Where is it weakest? And to what underlying social factors do you attribute so stark a divide?


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  • Anne Fenwick

    What it doesn’t factor in, according to Hickel, is that many of these people had more stability before regulatory practices took away natural land and resources, and made worker-consumers out of vast swathes of humanity.

    This is a bit off-topic, but it’s easy to overlook that this amounts to apologetics for traditional forms of slavery in a large number of cases. I think Hickel himself probably doesn’t know that, and has some romantic notions of hunter-gathering or communalistic agriculture. Well that mostly didn’t happen. Natural land and resources have typically under the control of a minority, getting a subsistence out of them has typically involved so much labor and risk that it’s only really compatible with organised labor forces. Organised labor can only be free if it is waged, and ‘consumption’ is the expression of its freedom.

    On topic: I think we need regulation because we live in large mobile communities where we don’t necessarily know each other. We’re socialised to high levels of trust in strangers and most of us behave reliably in return because a) there is an external explict framework that tells us what the obligations are, and b) it’s enforced. Outside of this, how can two strangers quickly form an agreement as to what their reciprocal rights and obligations even are? And without clear enforceable rules, how can we even begin to protect ourselves against the minority of deliberate exploiters we all know exist, who can evade any consequences by just moving freely on to the next group of people. Consider in the context of unregulated platforms of expression on the Internet…

  • Hi Anne!

    Oh, the happiness of returning from work to thoughtful comments. Thanks for writing, and for ordering your thoughts!

    I’m struck by some of the (very common!) givens in your response. For instance, you write:

    I think we need regulation because we live in large mobile communities where we don’t necessarily know each other. We’re socialised to high levels of trust in strangers and most of us behave reliably in return because a) there is an external explict framework that tells us what the obligations are, and b) it’s enforced. Outside of this, how can two strangers quickly form an agreement as to what their reciprocal rights and obligations even are?

    How do dogs manage the same, when they meet?

    I wrote about this in another post, but Colombia is a startlingly relaxed place with regard to animals: few are on leashes or with muzzles, and they don’t need to be to manifest self-control. The very fact that human beings are acclimatized to seeing dogs of all species wander freely about the communal spaces, chasing other dogs near small children, means that the dogs aren’t picking up owner-fears about possible attacks, and manifest a great deal less aggression or tension themselves.

    Similarly, folks here can start selling food anywhere, without licensing, and yet… you don’t have a breakdown of trust for lack of a Health&Safety Certificate on the sausage truck at the end of the street. Why not? Because it would be bad for business if the owner sold meat that got someone sick, so there’s already incentive enough–without regulation–to take care with one’s product and the cleanliness of one’s stall.

    This is what I find so fascinating: we from the more heavily regulated societies act as though we /automatically/ need a set of formal laws to do what animals do throughout nature, and what plenty of other communities do with minimal legal oversight. And yet, even in our cultures, regulatory laxness does creep into certain policy portfolios–like my example of Canadian abortion law (i.e. the lack thereof). So we clearly make choices regarding where and when we trust each other more, without explicit mandates. The question is, why does each of these cultures prioritize trust and distrust in the spheres that they do?

    And without clear enforceable rules, how can we even begin to protect ourselves against the minority of deliberate exploiters we all know exist, who can evade any consequences by just moving freely on to the next group of people.

    Have we protected ourselves from the “minority of deliberate exploiters”? Or does regulation just create different means by which exploitation occurs? I’m fairly certain the news cycles have been trending towards how billionaires are not at all interested in mending the rich-poor divide that traps millions in precarious economic circumstances (and indentured servitude, and modern prison-class slavery), or taking sufficient strides to heal the environment destroyed by aggressive business practices, or leaving the last vestiges of democracy alone. I’m not suggesting that exploitation will cease if we move into a less regulated society, but I hardly see evidence in our regulatory-impulse-driven culture that it’s somehow better at curbing exploitation.

    Natural land and resources have typically under the control of a minority, getting a subsistence out of them has typically involved so much labor and risk that it’s only really compatible with organised labor forces.

    I’m wondering what you mean here by “subsistence”, because the same question of monopolies applies to natural land and resources today, even with extensive regulation. (Relatedly, indigenous communities in Canada have recently recently been suffering under that hard reality as the government claims Wet’suwet’en territory for oil production!) However, the organized labour forces today aren’t dedicated to “subsistence” farming: they’re churning out excess for global markets. Completely different ends are achieved with that form of labour mobilization.

    Organised labor can only be free if it is waged, and ‘consumption’ is the expression of its freedom.

    Is that true, though? What about family structures, and those of local farm communities? What wages intrinsically went into farming communities that helped each other when harvests came? And when a family works on a rural finca here in Colombia, what marketplace consumption is intrinsically tied into its expression of freedom through the taking of a good meal with the whole brood?

    (NB: I feel like these comments are veering hard into economic regulation at cost to the overall question of regulatory impulses across policy portfolios–but if that’s a fair read of the prioritization in your original response, then good!)

  • Anne Fenwick

    (Dogs and fast food)

    The point about dogs and regulation isn’t really that dogs might get aggressive (usually, they don’t). It’s more a risk related to traffic, and then there’s the risk related to them pooing and peeing everywhere, People in the US have got less keen on either of those things. There are lots of places in the world which are still much more animal intensive, there’s animal poo everywhere anyway and it’s up to the traffic to be careful (though I have lived in such places and the deaths of animals are not uncommon at all – animal owners also have to live with that. And someone has to pick up the corpses). The point about food is that the cooked sausages are really very unlikely to make you sick. If it happens once, that guy might well shut down (someone might get very sick or die) and everyone will go to another sausage maker, In the meantime, unless it really is a small economy, you know nothing about the origin of those sausages, the conditions in the abattoir, the transport of animals, and the quality of their living conditions.

    (Have we protected ourselves from deliberate exploiters)

    No, because although it might seem like there’s a lot of rules and regulations we need to obey, the kinds of people you mention here are living in extremely de-regulated spaces and have consistently fought for the removal of regulations affecting them. They can do pretty much what they want with us, legally. But they were not, strictly speaking, the kinds of people I was thinking of. So… I do history, and my field is broadly the West Indies in the Early Modern period. That means plantation slavery and people sometimes wonder how such things could happen. Being a deregulated space has a lot to do with it, but my point about ‘exploiters’ is this. Most of the white men there were employees, not owners and the job required a willingness to commit acts of violence regularly and generally be a complete bastard. So then a process of self-selection came about, where, of all the potentially eligible young white men in Britain, only those who were complete bastards were self-selecting for the job. Do you think that even in an Early Modern society with a relatively lower population, it was possible to find a handful of complete bastards? Of course it was. If a situation exists where it is permissible to be a complete bastard for gain, someone will take it. It doesn’t matter that most people wouldn’t. Ditto, they will work in ‘prisons for profit’, while other persons will gladly take the profit. I certainly think we should regulate prisons for profit out of existence.

    (Why we don’t need to regulate abortions)

    The reason is simple, abortion ‘self-regulates’ into this pattern because contrary to some of the most ridiculous fantasies of anti-abortionists no woman has the slightest interest or inclination to carry an unwanted but healthy pregnancy around for seven months and then abort it. Literally not one. But now, imagine a horrifying fantasy dystopia scenario. What if the seven month old fetuses suddenly became valuable – let’s pretend they could be a source of organs for transplants that simply can’t be obtained elsewhere? And the situation is completely de-regulated. Do you think there is no woman, anywhere, who would not be desperate enough (perhaps even to save a living child) to produce and then abort a seven-month old fetus for large amounts of money?

    I had my own child in a society where they were talking about whether to regulate the telling of parents what sex their child was going to be. My ultrasound doctor wouldn’t tell me what he thought my child’s sex was because he was suspicious of my husband, who looks like a Middle Easterner. Obviously, the fear was that people might choose to abort female children. That didn’t seem to be a thing that was happening in that particular society, it was just a fear (of immigrants, and probably the wrong ones). However, we can’t say that sex selection by abortion is a thing that would just never happen. It does and has, in both India and China, because the motivation and the option are present in that society. It wouldn’t be likely to happen in Canada or most western countries, so they don’t need to decide whether they should hide the ultrasound screen from us when we go to have one.

    (On farming and labor)

    I think there are some ideas about ‘family structure’ and the ‘local farm community’ here which are quite romanticised. Historically, people didn’t just ‘help each other’ in some spontaneous, communalistic way, in general. These kinds of activities are typically very intensely regulated (even if not on paper) with very strict notions of who owes what to whom and in which order. And the ‘family unit’ of a half-prosperous farm consists of the actual family augmented by slaves or servants, not to mention a great deal of child labor. The role of everyone in that family is likewise intensely regulated. Even so, it’s very hard without modern mechanization and intensification to produce a surplus that will pay for the trappings of modern non-poverty, e.g. health care, education, safe, reliable utilities. But you’re right, it’s a bit off-topic.

  • guerillasurgeon

    Whether poverty is being reduced or not depends to some extent on your definition of poverty. And you find that even with their $1.90 definition, if you leave out China and India, poverty isn’t being reduced at all. In fact in parts of Africa it’s getting much worse. Then of course the $1.90 a day standard was set years ago and takes absolutely no account of inflation another point which I think is quite important
    so I think it’s equally important to look at how we define poverty, and I’m not sure that pure monetary terms does it because if we rely on purely monetary terms there would be no poverty anywhere in the Western world I would imagine. I think Sen if I remember rightly defined it as lack of options, which I think makes more sense.
    And as Anne Fenwick said we shouldn’t romanticise the lives that people lead before they become factory workers/consumers. Much of the work that they did before that as peasants or whatever you want to call and was backbreaking and a monumental amount of it was done by women. When I was a youth I remember seeing women in Southeast Asia who couldn’t straighten their backs because they had spent a lifetime bent over planting rice.
    But even so, transnational corporations have destroyed the economies that used to sustain people in poorer countries – without really asking them if they want to change. The elites in these countries – those with enough capital or education to take advantage of modernisation and globalisation become richer, the rest are disrupted. Not to mention that transnational corporations have lobbied to dismantle the welfare state in some of these countries which doesn’t help the lives of the poor much.
    And what often happens is the destruction of indigenous cultures – which again we shouldn’t romanticise because some of them have horrific beliefs – again about the role of women.
    Dammit haven’t got time to consider the rest but maybe tomorrow. Very interesting.

  • This is incredibly interesting! And it isn’t something much discussed in a space like Patheos.

    The other commenters seem to have actual expertise, so I’ll accept that. My own lay observation over the years has been that expressing things in dollars doesn’t always make sense, as you’re pointing out. The very levels in dollars per day, whether it’s 1.90 or 10, wouldn’t buy food in some places, let alone shelter, and yet may be plenty in others.

    But there are things in the modern world that would be of benefit to those who are living instead with little above ancient practices. A life expectancy in the 40s? That still exists in places like Chad, and is indicative of a not only short but miserable life, one where health issues are simply not addressed.

    Overall, I think you’re saying that we tend to be too cut-and-dried in our ideas about how things should work, and I agree.

    Some envision a time in the not-too-distant future when the vast majority of the work can be done without human assistance. In particular, tractors can already do most farm work unattended. There could be plenty of food to feed the world and not enough work for humans, so a universal basic income is being proposed. That will certainly require regulation! Whatever happens, it’s a good thing people are trying to plan for it now.

  • Oh, you have a much more efficient way of citing preceding comments to springboard onto your own! I might adopt that in the future, thanks! For now, I’m going to pin my comment to one quotation from yours, but hopefully in a way that responds to a recurring thread throughout the rest. If I’ve misrepresented anything, please inform!

    The reason is simple, abortion ‘self-regulates’ into this pattern because contrary to some of the most ridiculous fantasies of anti-abortionists no woman has the slightest interest or inclination to carry an unwanted but healthy pregnancy around for seven months and then abort it.

    This is what I said in the original post (well, nine months less a day, but close)! And this was precisely the point of my post: to talk about the underlying factors that make us trust self-regulation in some circumstances, but not others. You mentioned other such mitigating circumstances in your second response, such as shifting North American priorities re: dogs, and relative confidence about food (even though, again, North America still highly regulates the same, largely out of a fear of litigation [see: my post on litigiousness here] rather than an actual need for so much distrust of the business themselves).

    So, in light of your agreement that other factors allow for “self-regulation” in plenty of circumstances (and thank you, too, for sharing the vulnerable experience with your child’s “sexing”: what a frustration that must have been!), I’m left scratching my head at your original response. If you’re fully aware of mitigating factors that permit regulatory laxness in some regards, but not others, then when you say we “need” regulation, how would you answer the original questions of my post: What kinds of regulation? In which policy portfolios and cultural contexts more than others? I get the sense from your comment about the exploiters in our current system that we simply need better ways to regulate them, in turn. Any thoughts regarding how to regulate, consistently and securely, those with the cultural means (i.e. money, influence, and sometimes even military) to leave a majority of contemporary humans in dire relationships to poverty and freedom today, too?

    (Sorry if it sounds like I’m asking you to fix all the world’s problems in a comment thread! But your research background amply situates you to have perhaps arrived at some insights about how best to prevent contemporary systems from replicating the failings of the old. Again, my exposure to finca communities here prioritizes self-sustainability, not surplus, and not much interest in engaging in those “trappings” of modernity, so… yes, I will wholeheartedly cede that there is a touch of romanticism in my depiction, but it arises in sharp lockstep with a still-fresh sense of humility, to see so many people content in ways of living that urban North American society generally regards as impoverished and deficient. I suspect I’ll reach a more balanced position in, oh, year three or four of my life here!)

  • Guerillasurgeon, just a quick note to say that I am LOVING these on-the-fly responses, and reading them! Been a bit too hectic to respond directly to your comments, but they are sorely appreciated. The reminder that “lack of options” is a better standard is an especially solid point.

    I think your and Fenwick’s points about romanticization merit a post unto themselves, too, because it is DIFFICULT to talk about alternative living without intrinsically overselling other models as quick fixes. Without rushing to a middle-ground fallacy, I simply want us to be able to hold in tension the fact that there /are/ different ways to live, and see what might be improved in our own system if we allowed ourselves the flexibility to remember that there is life outside it.

    To that end, your thoughts, on this and another recent post, are greatly appreciated. Hope your own hectic life is faring well!

  • Anne Fenwick

    This is a really interesting conversation, not made easier by the fact that I suspect we’re about 8 time zones apart. I’m afraid I’m running late on my reply

    When do I think we need regulation

    I’m not sure if this is an exhaustive list, but it’s a start
    1. When we need predictability between strangers and fast – e.g. traffic regulations
    2. When we need to depend on strangers’ expertise and wouldn’t know how to start validating them ourselves – e.g. doctor or pilot validations
    3. When individual interest is likely to cause choices which are deemed either too immoral, too far against the common good, or too harmful possibly to the person themselves (although that’s usually justified through a knock-on cost to society) – so many things
    4. When we need things done which nobody wants to do – taxes, maintenance, but also the domestic chore list.

    How can we regulate consistently

    That’s a very difficult question because it’s power that allows people to a) make or unmake regulations, b) get away with breaking them and c) stop the rest of us doing anything about it. But there seem to be two main problem groups, corporations and wealthy individuals (with some overlap). One of the things we need to do is redress the inequalities of power, so, I know this is the very short form answer, but let’s call it left-wing politics for now. The other thing has to do with globalisation. Both these groups play a global field, and that isn’t a problem in itself. The problem is that regulation, on the contrary, is incredibly territorialised. They get to enjoy Wild West conditions because there is no regulatory infrastructure that can reach them where they operate – or more accurately, they get to play off all the regulatory systems against each other like they were cards in a game of poker. The fact is that de facto globalisation isn’t going anywhere, and we need globalized regulatory systems to go with it.

    Another thing I wanted to drop in, on the subject of regulations. If you want to see what happens when they suddenly break down, turn your eyes towards Brexit. We are 8 weeks from the catastrophic collapse of a system of regulations that allows just about everything in our society to keep working. The chances are the British government will blink – I hope so. In the meantime, everyone has to act as if they won’t, and the consequences are incalculable. This morning, the first four articles I read in the Guardian, were all questioning what will happen if…. , in matters large and small, and nobody has any answers to those questions.

    I hope you carry on enjoying Colombia. I grew up and lived a lot of my life in rural Europe. I have deep cultural memories of what that means, and although it’s extraordinarily beautiful to look at, it was an incredibly tough life, one that’s buffered now by all kinds of technologies and protections. (Edit: I just reread this and realized it sounded like my life was incredibly tough, errrr. not so much. I meant historically)

  • guerillasurgeon

    I like regulations. Maybe this makes me a fuddy-duddy, but I keep remembering that much of the regulatory system is there to keep you safe. It stops people from adulterating food & drink for a start, and I sort of like the – maybe illusory – feeling of safety that it gives me. And countrywide regulations although they are sometimes a pain, go some way toward stopping people imposing their cultural values on others. And for that matter I would hope that they would go some way toward stopping the how shall I put it – imposition of the moneyed on people who have none. I’ve been reading about the Zuckerberg dispute in a way, partly because a few years ago I did an undergraduate assignment on Hawaiian nationalism. I think problems occur when people use money to get round regulations as well mind you.
    Point taken about Colombian families. I argue regularly with a right wing Christian about replacing social welfare with family welfare so to speak. But I think the government offers a level of security that the family can’t, even the extended family. Again, I value security quite a bit. My parents grew up in the great depression of the 1930s, where my dad had to leave school when he was 13, because his father had been fired essentially for being ill. He was lucky enough to get an apprenticeship in a trade, and lucky enough to be retired by the time that trade was beginning to be monopolised by low-wage economies. And I myself have been made redundant twice and never really came back to the same level I was before, except for a period where I was technically self-employed. But that was relatively temporary. Luckily my wife was eminently employable and made a fair sized salary. And luckily we only had one child when I was unemployed. Oh dear, rambling – in the middle of a heat wave and not sleeping too well.
    Edit: I think the Elizabethan is discovered that relying on charity to try to alleviate poverty doesn’t work. Even though they were right bastards about the poor anyway.

  • guerillasurgeon

    I appreciate your appreciation. Many of the topics you discuss here I discover are related to my hobby of studying extramurally at a local university. So I’ve had to think about some of the things reasonably deeply, and for whatever weird reason I’ve kept all of my assignments. 🙂 And one thing about university studies you finish the assignment and you never come back to it ever again – unless you discover a place like this, so it’s nice. Plus there’s the science-fiction. Before I started simplifying my life in my old age I had about 6000 or 7000 science-fiction books. Until I thought “am I ever going to read any of these ever again?” But I still love it and have since I’ve been about 13. Dammit when I was a boy I spent more time reading science-fiction in the University library than I did doing assignments. I wonder my grades are better in my old age. Keep up the good work.

  • smrnda

    For a take on regulation, I might bring up a problem involving offices. At one place I worked, someone questioned why there needed to be rules about where people ate, dating food in the refrigerator, and even why cleaning staff were needed. At his previous job, everybody just cleaned up after themselves or occasionally took a turn tidying up.

    But, at his previous job he worked at a small company with all of 4 people. Informal arrangements work, up to a point, and then they don’t. Part of the issue isn’t so much trust and knowing each other, but that 5 people total can only generate so much mess. At the point where someone goes ‘we need to do something about this mess’ it can only be so bad, since there were only 5 people. If you went a week without cleaning the bathroom or kitchen area, it would be a job for a few minutes. If you have 100 people, it might become unbearably filthy in just a day, even if people were trying to keep clean. It’s just that if each of 5 people leave a few crumbs behind, how many crumbs do you have? If each of 100 people leave a few crumbs behind, how many do you have? What do the bathrooms look like? At some point you start needing full time cleaning staff, and rules because the density of people (and their messes) increases, even if everybody is being just as responsible.

    When you mention dogs, my spouse grew up in a rural area. People let dogs and cats roam around, but also accepted some number of fatalities from cars as inevitable but not so certain that letting them roam free was a bad idea. People had fun making bonfires and would frequently drink alcohol at such events. A person might target shoot out in their property. Sure, accidents happen, but the residents would view them as exceptions.

    Now, I’ve only lived in large cities where it’s far too easy for fires to spread. Dogs or cats running around would be hit by cars. If a person shot a gun, it would likely pass through other residences and quite likely hit someone. People used to doing these things even tend to get why they are illegal in densely populated cities – they’re somewhat safe in a rural area, but dangerous in a city. If everybody burned their leaves, the city would be choking in smoke. Police actually direct traffic in the streets, even though there are stoplights and road signs. They certainly would not be out doing that in the winter if it weren’t necessary.

    And let’s think about something like, unsupervised kids. The extent to which this is a risk depends on the area. When I was small, I lived in cities with comprehensive mass transit. If I had a transit pass, I could get pretty much anywhere. People didn’t tend to freak out about ‘unsupervised kids’ since kids could easily get home, and wherever you were, there were plenty of witnesses. I’ve seen people freak out more in areas where it’s assumed that people use cars to get around. Seeing a kid alone makes them think ‘how did they end up here?’ There may be no safe ways to travel by foot, bike, or other means accessible to kids. As a kid, nobody would have seen little me and thought ‘how will she ever get home safely?’ They already knew – I’d be on the subway, just like them. but in some areas, that’s a real concern. Whether letting kids roam around unattended is safe or neglectful depends a lot on where.

    Different societies and people also have different levels of tolerance for risk. When I met spouse’s family, it was clear to me that ‘the dog got hit by a car’ wasn’t a tragedy – some dogs get hit by cars, and it was expected. Some people think having a few kids die isn’t that unusual. Some of our views of ‘acceptable risk’ and need for regulation is just over time, people expecting lower risks over time, or viewing risks as something you can control.

    And food – people do die of food poisoning, so I can’t exactly think ‘well, if people got sick they’d stop eating.’ There was a time called ‘the gilded age’ which was much more laissez-faire concerning regulation, and it didn’t work out so well. Maybe if all the food you eat is from local ‘farm to table’ type establishments, you can trust that it’s relatively safe, but at the volume and rate food is processed industrially, the risks increase. It’s one thing to eat a sausage that your neighbor bought as an animal and then cut up and cooked. It’s another to eat a sausage at a restaurant where that sausage was prepared in a busy kitchen, from a meat processing plant in a different country. Sure, it’s ‘bad business’ if someone got food poisoning, but by the time the tainted meat was discovered we’d have a lot of sick or perhaps dead people. Litigation serves a purpose – it’s a deterrent that means that even large enough businesses won’t screw around. I recall that the ‘hot coffee’ incident at McDo’s was held up as an example of runaway, frivolous legislation, but McDo was egregiously at fault. the supply chain for food is complex, and the risks of an ‘oops’ are more than one person getting sick. I’m not even sure if society has too much litigation. When people go on about ‘ridiculous awards’ or ‘stupid lawsuits’ they tend to be very weak on particulars, and more just a general sense that there’s ‘too much’ going on. But how much of that is corporate propaganda? After all, corporations want to limit their liability in court.

    Though something about less modern communities. A friend of mine was once in an area like that and noted that certain aspects of modernity, such as rubber tires, had arrived. This created a problem because there was no infrastructure for disposal. The solution was people just floated the new types of waste down a river, which turns into someone else’s problem. And we can see the problems with plastic – many areas don’t have the infrastructure for disposal or recycling, and so they’re just awash in these ‘modern’ wastes. They got well without modern trash and recycling, until they got ahold of things like rubber and plastic that can’t be disposed of using traditional means.

    With abortion, women don’t get late term abortions for shits and giggles – the ‘regulations’ are just for controlling and punishing women.

    At times though, I’ll agree that regulations are a scam. Many people are noting that legalization of marijuana has just meant that large businesses can now sell pot. The ‘regulations’ are costly, meaning that smaller sellers just can’t enter the market. In those cases, regulation has been influenced by lobbyists who are using it to secure a market for themselves.

  • smrnda

    Are we really sure that animals don’t need regulation? If you check the stats, cats kept as house cats live much longer than cats which are left to roam around out of doors by nearly a factor of 2. We can debate about quality of life, but at least quantity seems to indicate that ‘animals doing what they usually do’ might not result in longer lifespans.

    And are there any figures on Columbia’s rates of food poisoning or deaths from tainted food? I just think everybody needs to avoid ‘if people do it, it must be safe.’ Many people today argue that the rules about ‘no adult alone with a child’ are excessive and paranoid, and that ‘things like child abuse didn’t happen back in my day’ but that’s been shown to be quite false, particularly when it comes to clergy. Kids were being abused all the time. The rules we now follow probably are preventing some of it, but it also probably scares predators away from jobs where they know they’ll get scrutiny. So when people say ‘why do we have all these rules’ I say ‘ever see the news?’

    I mean, rules about giving people medical information used to be more lax. I could call and go ‘so I’m asking about this patient’ and they’d tell me info. People like employers used to be able to demand what is now private info, which was used as an excuse to fire workers. Family members could easily make decisions on behalf of others, who may not have been okay with it. Husbands would say their wives were ‘insane’ and get them committed.

  • smrnda

    the family doesn’t work out as a welfare system if you happen to go against family expectations. Many GLTBQ people can’t rely on their families, people can’t rely on their families if they no longer belong to the same religion, they can’t rely on their families if they marry someone from the ‘wrong’ ethnic or cultural groups. When the state provides welfare, it reduces the coercive power of the family.