Rules – a double-edged sword

Keeping the rules is supposed to keep you out of trouble. But how often have the law-abiding been mystified at becoming the target of police attention while criminals are ignored. What is going on?

Perhaps a hypothetical example – a thought experiment – can suggest why.

Imagine a classroom. Most of the students are good, some are bad. The teacher is supposed to account for the presence of every child, but one particular kid is hugely disruptive, not only to the class but to the school. He is known to come from a criminal family. He decides to truant. Peace returns to the classroom and the school is not being disrupted. Somehow the teacher accidentally fails to notice his absence.

Alternatively, a good kid starts to truant. The teacher switches into full rule-applying mode. He notifies the Head, who notifies the relevant authorities and in short order that child’s parents are  visited by bureaucrats and police threatening fines and possible criminal penalties. The school, bureaucrats, police all keep records for future reference.

Or another alternative. Another good child who truants parents are a lawyer/doctor/police/political class. The teacher has a discreet word with the Head who personally has a quiet word with the parents, and the child either returns to class or doesn’t but the school has taken action and the matter is considered closed. All unofficial, off the record, unacknowledged. Nothing must happen to impair an elite’s child reputation regardless of behaviour.


The problem with rules. Who applies them. And who the rules are applied against.

There are four categories of actors in this human equation. Ordinary folk. Criminals. Privileged. And Enforcers of rules who could belong to any of the previous categories. Different attitudes to rules belong to each group.

Criminals disregard the rules asserting their special exemption with retaliatory violence.

The privileged don’t expect the rules to be applied to them although they are keen for the rules to be exactly applied to everyone else and are zealous in applying legal and social penalties against any so naive as to think the rules should be applied to them. Doing this asserts their status and maintains their status, they who judge but are not judged.

Ordinary folk view rules as social policies which exist for the protection of everyone and to maintain a harmonious society in which everyone, protected from criminal and anti-social behaviours can flourish.


If enforcers of rules think that rules should be fair and impartially and universally applied, there are three consequences.

That individual can become a moral and social hero for standing up for what is right. (Rare).

They can take a stand against criminals/anti-social and find themselves and family targeted for criminal attack, with the standard indifference from the police, or police cooperation with the criminals (in ignoring the crimes).

They can be subject to elite retaliation taking the form of their career being undermined, false accusations of criminal/immoral/non-professional activity, and general professional harassment and public ignominy.

The priority for “authority” to maintain the stability and appearance of infallibility of those in charge, maintaining the status quo and transferring the label of trouble-maker from the people actually causing the trouble to the person trying to deal with the problem.

Authority often interferes when citizens apply perfectly legal methods of solving a social problem expanding the “you mustn’t take the law into your own hands” to include no-one not in a position of authority must solve a social problem themselves, as that undermines the authority’s monopoly of deciding which situations are problems and need to be dealt with. You are treated as stealing authority’s prerogative which is a licence to act. Even when you acted because authority made it clear they were determined to do nothing and let the problem run.


On the other hand if the rule enforcer is higher status and interprets his class privilege as the right to enforce rules on others, lower class of course, not higher, he will revel in his right to exercise power.  In the interests of his own safety he will avoid avoid confronting criminals but will charge full throttle against permissible and safe targets.

For ordinary folk the situation is weird. They keep the rules. They expect others to keep the rules as it brings about the best situation for everyone. But they see some classes of disruptive and privileged mock-laws are exempted, while they alone are targeted.

To make matters worse rule enforcers to justify their existence and enjoy their licence to exercise power (bully, protected from restraint or repercussions?) not able to find major criminal activity amongst the population they are permitted to target become ever more zealous in applying penalties for trivial infractions. They are motivated to find crimes where there are none. Going after criminals is dangerous. Going after elite destroys your livelihood. They need to find crimes/rule breakers amongst the only remaining population they can safely act against. That that population is generally law-abiding is hugely frustrating – it indirectly threatens their existence. Their job is to apply rules/laws. If they can’t find people they can apply the rules against they have no job. Jobsworths need work to do. In the absence of any real work they become inventive.

The end result of this human equation is being law-abiding sets you up as the preferred soft targets for criminals and prime targets for harassment from the authorities.

Water seeks the lowest level. Human actions likewise follow the paths of least resistance.

In the present situation being  good makes you a trouble magnet.


This isn’t rocket science it is common sense. From the point of view of social justice, correcting this human equation for a better result is not difficult. What is lacking is the will to do it by those who have the power.

Firstly if a rule infraction is so trivial that penalties need not be applied to the privileged, then they need not be applied to anyone. Perhaps many rules are unnecessary.  Equality before the law. Social custom should suffice.

Secondly if rules/laws are worth upholding those who break them must be dealt with, otherwise there is no point in having the rules. Therefore those who apply the rules must be committed to this principle and accept that their job requirement requires confrontation with people who are of their nature very unpleasant, devious, time-wasting, intelligent,  manipulative, immoral, even dangerous, and obstinate in attempting to attain/retain privileged exempt status. But no-one with any sense is going to take on such thankless work in the absence of robust support from their managers who themselves can resist criminal and/or elite pressure and with the support of society at large.

Thirdly the law-abiding majority must cease to be collectively soft targets. Criminals and elites protect their advantaged position with vigilance, muscle and cunning.  You can’t protect or advance rights by being passive or trusting. The victimised classes, collectively the majority, must solidly reject “divide and rule” and back each other up when subjected to bureaucratic unfairness, exposing mal-administration.

They must avoid chasing red-herrings dangled enticingly by the manipulative elites.

Fight to protect rights collectively  not against each other or at others expense, building on the foundation of citizens’ rights earned over centuries of struggle and sacrifice.

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