No, it’s not possible to follow all the rules

Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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29 Responses

  1. Are we partially just bargaining about price? I mean, I think it’s ridiculous that you could, in all good faith, sell your car in the way you sold it and because of some minor things you overlooked–things that at the time it wasn’t clear that you needed to attend to in the first place–and thereby be subject to arrest.

    But I think there should be some way to transfer ownership and whatnot.

    But then, I think I also agree that even a simplified institution will fall prey to the “expectation of only partial compliance” that North writes about (disclosure: I only skimmed, not read, his post).

    But then, I don’t wish to get rid of all rules altogether and if rules we must have, then there should be *some* consequence for not following them, balanced, I hope, by rights to due process and shifting of burden against those alleging non-compliance, perhaps with a mens rea requirement thrown in.

    But then, any system will be imperfect. That’s no argument for a system, or systems in general, but we’ll have that inherent imperfection.

    So I must repeat

    the ambivalence I expressed in your last post

    , both about that particular article and about what appears to be your main point.

    Again, I have a lot of sympathy. When I was a bank teller, I realized on some level that I was violating all the time the rules I was supposed to follow. I enforced some of them inconsistently, maybe in some ways arbitrarily. I was afraid that for some weird reason there might someday be an investigation and I’d be called to testify for some reason or other and have to admit under oath that I hadn’t followed all the rules. (Yes, I was that naive.) But I was also a rules-maven when I found it convenient. For example, a customer not following all the rules was a trump card I could use against them if they got difficult.

    So, where are we? I accept the legitimacy of the point you bring up, but there’s also a sense of inevitability. So yes, I’m worried about it, too. But don’t know where to go from there.Report

  2. notme says:

    It is possible to follow the rules.Report

    • Jon Rowe in reply to notme says:

      But not all of them; you don’t.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to notme says:

      Do you drive at the speed limit?

      If so, you’re actually not following the rules. You should really drive ten to fifteen miles an hour below the speed limit, to allow margin for errors in measurement and control.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to notme says:

      For the common sense stuff it is. There are lots of regulations and laws though. It is not possible for an ordinary citizen to know all of them unless they have an incentive to. Most people are probably going to break the law some time even if it is in a very trite way.

      There is a big split onto whether to enforce the laws according to their spirit or their letter. The decision to go for the spirit or the letter can really effect outcomes.Report

  3. InMD says:

    Gabriel Conroy:

    So, where are we? I accept the legitimacy of the point you bring up, but there’s also a sense of inevitability. So yes, I’m worried about it, too. But don’t know where to go from there.

    I think a good start would be a reassessment of attaching criminal jeopardy to what amount to minor, unintentional regulatory violations. Culturally we seem to have decided that the best way to handle every problem is prosecution and through the criminal justice system without taking into account things like cost and diminishing returns. The strongest point in the previous post on this issue I thought was that while the OP is well equipped to navigate these types of problems without ending up behind bars that isn’t true for many or most people.

    It doesn’t mean that we don’t need regulatory systems or even that the trade offs aren’t ever worth it if such systems will inevitably produce some arbitrary outcomes. It might mean however that such systems shouldn’t be connected to the criminal justice system, or if they are it should be very difficult for the state to escalate these types of incidents to that level.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to InMD says:

      That sounds like a pretty good starting point to me.Report

    • Will H. in reply to InMD says:

      I happened to be thinking about that just last night in a different context.

      The federal courts used to be about adjudication of rights; civil suits. And the number of civil suits in the federal courts far outweighed the criminal cases.
      That changed in the 1980’s. I believe it would be better were we to return to that historic norm.
      Most of this falls to Congress. Yet there are things the courts themselves could do in an administrative capacity to yield some effect. Among these are: Establishing priorities in docketing and bond hearings, with matters of malum prohibitum receiving the lowest priority.

      Now, the context in which I was thinking of this was of the Second Amendment.
      I have a somewhat novel take on the Second: Something old, something new, something off-the-wall.
      I do believe that states have the right to regulate firearms (old), but that the Amendment states an individual right (new). A strict reading precludes Congress from establishing any firearm offenses (off-the-wall).
      On an effective level, this means that any firearms charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s office need be pleaded under state law.
      As for current incarcerees, the convictions need be reviewed to determine whether the evidence supports a charge under state law, and if so, transfer those persons to a state penal facility.
      It’s a matter for the states.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to InMD says:

      It would help & it’s a point I’ve made before, that there should be a demonstrated harm before we engage criminal justice system.Report

    • James K in reply to InMD says:


      It would be nice if someone in your government figured out that there are forms of compliance enforcement that don’t involve SWAT teams or prisons.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to James K says:


        Well, there’s always covert ops….Report

      • InMD in reply to James K says:

        @james-k I agree. Unfortunately I think the heavy handed approach has become a sign that a problem is being taken seriously. Bureaucracies of course also love the ability to enforce their will in a manner that inherently increases their power.

        @oscar-gordon I’d actually take it a step further and say there should be a demonstrated threat to person or property. I do think there’s a harm to abandoned vehicles being left for other people to deal with, just not a severe enough harm that it should immediately result in criminal charges.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to InMD says:


          I meant harm to an individual. A lot of the justification for such things is that there is a harm to the public/community, which is, in a sense, true, but harm to the community is a much more nebulous thing, as almost any action could be viewed as a harm to the community (leave your trash cans on the corner too long can “harm” the community by being an eyesore, road hazard, or attracting vermin – doesn’t mean a person should go to jail for it).Report

  4. Stillwater says:

    Jason K onceuponatime wrote a post about The Rules that remain on the books which folks discount because they’re now viewed, in contemporary times, as being not-worth-enforcing. That doesn’t mean, he advised, that cops can’t enforce those rules. It also doesn’t mean, he also advised, that cops won’t enforce those rules when suitable motivated. I mean, they’re the laws for Allah’s sake! And cops gotta enforce the rules, man. It’s what they gotta do!

    But his bigger point was that a reliance on Cultcha and pragmatics to determine what rules will be or ought to be enforced reduces to a veal pen criminal justice system since cops, by congressional intent, are supposed to enforce the rules on the books. We need a culling of stupid rules, seems to me. We also need better rules, including rules delimiting what cops & bureaucrats cannot get away with. So I don’t disagree with him on that score.Report

    • nevermoor in reply to Stillwater says:

      As a matter of logic, and assuming the process went ideally, you’re right.

      In our world, however, I suspect that such a process would neither produce useful results. If we only got rid of only these kinds of laws, we would have achieved nothing at great cost because they would never be enforced, and may be defensible on that ground alone. If you think a “culling of stupid rules” is going to solve the more frequently-encountered issues (e.g. everyone speeds, some people get tickets, huge racial bias) I have a hard time seeing it.

      There is also, of course, the possibility for severe unintended consequences. Sometimes culling rules you find unnecessary creates democracy-destroying consequences.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to nevermoor says:

        That hearkens back to that parable of the gate/fence. You can’t remove a gate fence until you understand why it was there in the first place. Which is fine as it is. But as a citizen, I should be able to quickly & easily learn why a specific rule/law is in effect, and if the agency responsible for that rule, either it’s creation or enforcement, can not produce such justification, then we have a problem.

        We should never tolerate rules & laws that are followed or enforced just because that is the way it’s always been done. Likewise we should not tolerate rules & laws whose original purpose &/or intent is outdated or outmoded. And while culling such laws might be expensive, that is part & parcel to the cost of government. If that cost is unattractive, perhaps we should be more careful with the crafting of so many laws.Report

  5. Kazzy says:

    Seriously, dude… this is just getting sad and pathetic…Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Kazzy says:


      You don’t think this is an issue, or do you merely object to privileged white guys drawing attention to it in regard to themselves?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:


        My objection to this piece is that it is now Jon’s fourth post in which he rather childishly insists, “No, really guys, I really didn’t do anything wrong! Look! LOOK!”

        I am all for discussing the excesses and abuses of the state, police, criminal justice system, etc. And as imperfect as Jon’s approach is, well, I don’t object to him trying. But this: “It started with potential serious legal trouble I face from something I did not do (I did not 1. drive the car in question unregistered; 2. put false plates on it; and 3. put a “for sale” sign on it on the streets of Trenton, NJ, giving the legal authorities there ground to say it was “abandoned” on their streets, three things for which I was ticketed). All I did was sell my car to a business that happened to be an agent of Geico and of Penndot.” Sounds sad and pathetic. I don’t think Jon is trying to convince us the system is fucked. I think he is trying to convince us he got fucked. Because regardless of whether he got fucked or not, the system is fucked. But his focus has been on him, not on those who have been far greater victims of the state than he. I mean, he had to make a couple of phone calls and send some emails. I get that the situation was convenient for him and an example of some problems in the system, but it isn’t a great example and I don’t know why he is still trying to convince those of us who took objection to his piece that, no, really, we should be sympathetic to him.

        It is, as I said, pathetic.Report

        • Damon in reply to Kazzy says:

          It’s the petty tyrannies of the fascist nation state that oppress us all Kazzy.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Kazzy says:

          I disagree, it doesn’t sound sad and pathetic, it sounds like an honest mistake that Jon was able to clear up somewhat easily because he is a privileged white dude. It’s also not sad & pathetic that he takes umbrage at the penalties the state of NJ is willing to bring to bear for a relatively minor issue. It speaks poorly of the NJ bureaucracy that they feel such heavy-handedness is appropriate. As Damon notes, it is petty tyranny and it damages the trust we have in government. Granted as someone who is libertarian minded, Jon is likely already somewhat distrustful of the government, but still.

          And considering all the pushback Jon got by this community, pushback that largely took the form of “Well if you’d just followed all the rules…”, restating the original point is valid, especially when discussing how there are so many rules it is nearly impossible to follow them all to the letter.Report

  6. Damon says:

    I remember reading Gary’s article and enjoyed it. I think it would be and effective method, but it does rely, I think, a degree of fear based obedience. If the ‘crats aren’t convinced that they would be taken out and shot for failure to process the paper work, I’m not sure how effective it would be. I think we are “getting there” in terms of this method being effective, but ain’t :there” yet.

    @will-h @inmd

    I think we can start by going back to the mens reas (sp). I see now reason why you should be liable to be jailed for failing to follow some esoteric civil regulation. Jail should be for those of criminal intent that harmed someone…not failure to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.Report