Rules are real. And rules matter. Constitutions, bylaws, and the little league rulebook – they all determine daily experiences and expectations. Rules are hard to change because they have a lot of inertia: think of it as ‘social momentum’. Changing the rules of baseball to include 4 strikes instead of 3 would change the story of every subsequent baseball game. But rules are not just social conventions.

We believe rules only count if they can be enforced, and uninforced rules can be ignored. The threat of a penalty only counts if there are referees with red cards in their pockets – who have been appointed by the league. In other words: rules are the endpoints of power. Who has the power the rewrite a constitution when a president or prime minister who refuses to step down after their term? What if the laws surrounding your municipal water infrastructure could be rewritten by lobbyists from the Coca-Cola Company or some multinational beverage corporation? What if your municipal government enact bylaws that directly contradict the legislation of your provincial or federal government?

Changing a rule tends to take an immense effort. The higher the impact that changing the rule will have on the system, the more work it will likely take to change the rule. The world is exemplary of the systemic ripples and reactions that can occur when the rules change. Just consider:

Closing or opening borders

Legalizing cannabis

Physician or medical assistance in dying

The ‘clawback’ on income earnings for people receiving social assistance

Understanding the sheer power of rules to affect change (both positive and negative), most democracies make the alteration of rules intentionally difficult by organizing institutional checks and balances.

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Rules' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on October 21, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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