Simple rules for a complex world

This policy bulletin is an extract from Liberty and prosperity: Principles of good law in a complex world (conference presentations published 2000).

The topic for this talk is Simple rules for a complex world, the title of a book that I published in 1995. When I started to write about this question, I confess that I thought about it mainly within the framework of the Anglo American system, with a nod towards the Roman law system which I studied at Oxford as an undergraduate lawyer in the mid-1960s. The theme that seemed critical to my work ran as follows: What implication can we draw from the rapid technical transformations within society over time about the kinds of legal rules that any particular society ought to adopt? When I started to think about the evolution of legal systems in response to changing technology, I was struck by how many of the Roman law and early medieval common-law principles that I had studied continued to have, if anything, greater validity and applicability as applied in a modern society. This is something of a paradox. That is, the older legal rules seemed to do better as the level of social complexity and technical innovation increased. The puzzle was why so many of the old rules for the horse-and-buggy age continued to do quite well in modern civilisation.

I think the answer goes something like this. To figure out how lots of moving pieces fit together, you can try one of two approaches. One way is to stand outside the system, to look hard at all the atoms whizzing back and forth, and then to take it upon yourself to figure out what you can do as puppeteer or master of marionettes to co-ordinate their activities. What you then quickly discover to your regret is that these individual actors have wills and desires of their own. They are most unwilling to stay tethered to the end of your string. Their independence makes your task o f social control very difficult, and your mission only gets harder as the number of people expands, the pace of innovation accelerates, and the diversity of the individuals to be regulated increases.

For the most part, the oldest systems did not start with a vision of centralised control using one common plan for what a society, or a nation, or a world should look like. Instead, they tried the second approach, which stressed individual autonomy and self-governance as its guiding principles, letting individuals make their own arrangements with one another. Now there is strength in numbers: If a society has more independent individuals, with various different beliefs about the good and so on, those rules of voluntary self-organisation can actually work better as societies become more complex than they did when societies were simple. The level of knowledge that any one person at the centre can have about how the pieces move will diminish as the number of people increases. But each person continues to have strong self-knowledge, with greater opportunities to find suitable matches. The greater number of possibilities frustrates central administrations; yet at the same time they offer more opportunities to all self-governing individuals. This proposition takes on the life of a mathematical theorem that is not tied to the mores of any given culture, nor to the preferences of any given individual. So regimes of limited property rights, contractual rights and so forth will work, if anything, better in large, anonymous societies than they do in small, closely-knit ones. To the extent that one can find an accommodation to this insight in the classical legal principles, it is evidence of their durability.

Thus far I have referred to the temporal dimension, and I will return later to this aspect in discussing how any given legal system evolves from its simple origins to the headier environment of a more complicated world. What I also discovered over the years is that the case for simple rules also has a geographical dimension. That is, instead of thinking about simple rules for a complex world and stressing simplicity versus complexity, we should show due deference to the last word: World. Speaking and listening to other people in other places, I gradually discovered the analysis of simple rules has two dimensions. The first is the constant search to find some sort of general principles that should apply with respect to all forms of human interaction. The second is to reconcile those general principles with the peculiar historical circumstances and the evolution of law and practice in any given country.

Source: This policy bulletin may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

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