Thoughts on Robin Hanson’s Simple Rules

I loved this blog post, and I started to respond on Twitter but it rapidly became a blog-length thought, so here we are.

People hate simple rules and meritocracy for a lot of reasons. Some thoughts:

  • By definition, the majority of people will be outworked and outperformed by a small minority. The majority don’t like the constant arms race of hard work; they’d rather use their mass influence to cap the benefits of it. That’s why 40-hour work weeks exist. Because if you can get ahead of me by working 50 hours, then I’ll have to work 50 hours to keep up, and I don’t want to. I’d rather force you to only work 40.
  • Clear rules eliminate excuses, and people cling to their excuses like a security blanket. If the rules are murky and I don’t get what I want, I can cry “Injustice!” or “Bias!” and sometimes it will even work – and if it doesn’t, I can count on a lot of sympathy. Or at least I can be righteously indignant. But if the rules were simple and fair from the start, I have no excuse when I break them or fail. I think this is the biggest contributing factor.
  • People think they’re more deserving than others, and also that they have good reasons for doing bad things that others do for bad reasons. Example: “I smoke marijuana because I have chronic back pain and it helps me be a more productive worker, but they smoke marijuana because they’re worthless pot heads.” People want the ability to enforce laws on others but skate themselves because they legitimately believe that’s just.
  • Many rules can’t be objective. Especially in things like college admissions or tenure considerations, it’s often a matter of relative ranking rather than objective standard, which makes fair rules nearly impossible. The real standard is “better than X% of your peers,” which means it’s malleable.
  • My (totally anecdotal) observation: The people who most want clear rules are the people that would excel in a meritocracy. They want clear rules because they don’t expect to need special consideration, and don’t want special consideration for someone else getting in the way of their earned success.
  • Conversely to the last point, some people want clear rules so they know the bare minimum they need to do.

The ultimate example of the downside of unclear rules:

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