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Dec 13, 2005

Policy vs. Law

David Veksler, the owner of Objectivism Online, recently made me an administrator, which requires that I get more involved in policy decisions. As a result I’ve had occasion to do some thinking about management in general. I remarked in one ongoing discussion that I’ve found it’s best for institutions to avoid creating rules in an effort to solve problems, and that de facto situations should be made into rules if you want to keep them in place.

The reason for this is that organizations like the forum evolve. They start out as the owner and a few people that all know each other. Gradually, as the number of participants grows, there are increasing difficulties maintaining the organization, conflicts over what the “real” purpose of the organization is, disagreements, and sometimes even outright fights.

The management’s response is frequently to make ever-more-draconian rules and regulations in an effort to control the situation. It works, sometimes, but it engenders so much hostility that something important is lost: the benevolent atmosphere. I’ve seen it so many times that I’m beginning to despair. Cliché’d old people are often seen complaining that it’s “just not like it used to be around here”. Or that “people were friendlier in the old days.” Well, this is why. The really sad fact is that it’s usually all the result of one jerk, and everything snowballing from there.

So how do you solve this problem? Good policy. And the first step to making good policy is the recognition that it has to be flexible. Policy depends on particular personalities, on particular methods, on particular situations; it is immensely context-dependant. This distinguishes it from rules (or laws, when you start talking about government), which are general principles that admit no context, because they are supposed to apply in any context.

The answer to a policy question is and should be “ask the boss”. There are two corollaries to this answer: if the boss isn’t around to make the decision, he has to understand that something he might not necessarily sanction might be done as a stopgap, and the non-boss needs to understand that the boss reserves the right to reverse stopgap decisions.

Even the government has policy; that’s the primary difference between administrations, for instance. I have noticed, however, that people (a LOT of people, many in positions of power!) make the mistake of failing to distinguish between the two. If you ever want to see policies that became a disaster because they were made into law, look at anti-trust legislation, or anti-obscenity legislation. It is perfectly legitimate for, say, the president to use the prestige of his position to encourage businesses to “play fair”, or radio jockeys to refrain from cursing. Those are all matters of policy, and individuals remain free to dissent; no one’s rights are being violated. Conversely, it is not legitimate to denounce the president for holding a policy with which you personally disagree. The fact that you voted for him (or didn’t) doesn’t mean that you can dictate his ideas, either.

Drawing the distinction between policy and law helps clear the way to better management of almost any interpersonal relationships.

Crossposted to the Objectivism Metablog.

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