Do Rules Work?

One of my own mentors, Paul Evans, sent a quote to me the other day that’s good to think about. “When values conflict with behaviors and behaviors conflict with values we make rules.” I’ve been concerned for a decade now about the increasing jungle of rules and prohibitions placed upon us – adults and children. I can’t tell the difference anymore between a picture of a prison and a picture of a public school. Both are often encircled by fencing and barbed wire. I can’t think that this is good for the spirits of our children. Fear doesn’t facilitate learning.

There’s a quote from the Tao te Ching that goes like this, “The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.” I believe that to be true.

In one the neighborhoods I live in there is a small lake with ducks. For various reasons a rule has been made that the property owners there are not to feed the ducks. Just like Paul says, someone’s value of not feeding the ducks ran up against the behavior of others who fed the ducks. The “non-feeders” have more power in the neighborhood so their first step was to get a rule passed.

Of course, the duck feeders have just as strong a value as the non-feeders, but their value is different. They want to feed the ducks. The rule didn’t do any good, the duck feeders fed the ducks anyway. They didn’t share the belief or value that feeding the ducks was wrong.

The next step in the “rule escalation” was for the non-duck feeders, who are in power in this neighborhood’s government, to make signs, put them on poles, and post the signs all around the lake. Now the lake, beautiful in the morning with the fog rising off it and ducks sleepily floating about, is not so pretty as your eyes fall on the signs before they get to the water view.

Of course, the duck feeders were angered that their value of duck feeding was being disregarded so they continued to feed the ducks anyway.

The final step in the “rule escalation” is that the non-duck feeders have sent around a note encouraging the property owners to “report” their neighbors for feeding ducks.

So, instead of having peaceful property owners and a beautiful lake we have a lake littered with signs that do no good and an atmosphere in the neighborhood of “we” versus “they” and some people (the non-duck feeders) who will actually spy on and report their neighbors. We have created, in essence, a mini police state in a lovely neighborhood filled with very nice people, some of whom have differing values about feeding ducks.

Are rules ever going to make a person share your values? You know the answer to that. No. Rules will never change a person’s values. They may change behavior, but the disconnect between the behavior and the value will always cause a sense of irritation and discomfort. This in turn will spill over into other topics and situations which might be solved amicably if the two sets of people with differing values weren’t already feeling uneasy and distrustful of each other over feeding ducks.

You might say “well this is a silly example, ducks are not that important.” Ha! Tell that to these two groups of neighbors!

If we can learn to educate each other and come to a common agreement rather than one group (the more powerful) making legislation and rules to control another group’s behavior we have a chance to live in more peace and harmony than we currently have.

A year after a horrific school shooting, another shooting happened in another part of the country. Bars, guards, and fences cannot stop people intent on harm. Taking our shoes off before we get on airplanes cannot stop terrorism in the skies. What will go a longer way is for us to speak with one voice, share one value, and monitor all our behaviors against that value.

All our behaviors? Yes. So, for example, if you say you are against violence yet you watch violence on TV, you are not living your value. If you say you are against terrorism but then terrify your dog by locking it in a closet for behaviors you didn’t like you are, in fact, a terrorist.

Living by our values means questioning our behaviors throughout the day, not just when it is convenient to stand our ground in an attempt to control the behaviors of others. Living by our values is demonstrating leadership. One leads one’s own life and without knowing it models leadership and values for others. That has a rippling effect that is positive rather than negative. It requires more of each of us, leading life by our values without attempting to force others to share what those values are. And it creates more change, too – change that is much more lasting than neighbors reporting each other.


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