The People Making “The Rules” are Dumber Than You

Recently the administration at the hospital where I work announced their intention to become a cardiac “Center of Excellence.”  Certification requires a considerable amount of employee education on 12-lead telemetry and the like.

If you’ve ever worked in a hospital, you know that “employee education” equates to a bunch of photocopied “inservice” handouts, mostly on stuff that’s completely unrelated to your job and with post-tests you can pass without remembering any of it five minutes later.

That got me thinking about a number of things:    About how irrelevant most of the material is to the jobs of most of the people studying it.    About how irrelevant the metrics of the people in charge are to what they are supposedly trying to measure.  About how opaque genuine standards of excellence, and the work being judged, are to the people making policies.  About how such “certification,” like ISO-9000 and JCAHO, is a gimmick designed mainly to impress yokels on the outside who don’t know any better.

The people who regulate what you do, in most cases, know less about what you’re doing than you do.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s nominally a “public” or “private” organization, or how smart the people running it are as individuals.  No matter how smart the people in charge are, they are systematically stupid in their organizational roles, because of the dynamics of information flow in hierarchies (as described by Robert Anton Wilson, for example).

Organizations are pyramids, and the people at the tops of the pyramids tend to communicate much more effectively with each other than they do with those at the bottoms of their own respective pyramids.  That means that most organizations are riddled with “best practices” based almost entirely on feedback about how well they worked from people at the tops of the other pyramids.  And those latter people have almost no valid knowledge of how the policies actually worked in their own organizations.

Remember the story of the Emperor’s new clothes?  Large organizations are designed to insulate naked emperors from unpleasant feedback.  That set of clothes must look good, because the emperors at the other organizations  all have a set just like it, and they can’t stop talking about how great they look!

The state, by promoting centralization and hierarchy and insulating bureaucratic organizations from the competitive consequences of their inefficiency, causes such irrationality to predominate in our society.  We’re living in the world of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”

Once you view the people making the rules as people like you, just using their own judgment based on their subjective assessment of events, it’s pretty hard to respect “the rules” as something handed down from Mount Sinai.  You view the rule makers as your equals, and their rules as suggestions to be judged based on your own assessment of the reasoning behind them.

And more often than not, you find the judgment of the people making the rules is inferior to that of the people in direct contact with the situation.

Once you take this view, you’re likely to resist attempts to force you to substitute someone else’s authority-based rules for your own judgment, or to promise not to do anything before you’ve had a chance to assess the situation for yourself.  You’re likely to treat rules imposed by people not directly involved in the situation as a form of irrationality, and to treat bureaucratic irrationality as an obstacle to be routed around by the people actually doing the work.

For example, every time I drive over the Boston Mountains in western Arkansas, I see endless “suggested speed limits” signs.  But I can tell by the feel of the truck under me, as it handles a curve, whether the suggested speed limit is a reasonable one.  And I would guess that I’ve driven that route a lot more times than the person who set the limit.

Another good example is Robert Pirsig’s account, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, of how a technical writer composes the assembly instructions or manual for something like a bicycle.   Generally the foreman takes the most dispensable worker off the assembly line to “advise” the writer based on his personal judgment, from just looking at the parts, of the best way to fit them together.

Despite the common view of “The Dictionary” as some sort of superhuman authority, dictionary definitions, standard pronunciations, etc., are determined by lexicographers based on field observations of how a majority of educated people actually use the words.

All these “rules” and “instructions” are based on the subjective judgment of people just like you.  So when it’s a choice between authority-based rules and your own lying eyes, go with your lying eyes.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory