Thursday, June 13, 2024

Rules & rituals

The modern world requires us to repose trust in many anonymous institutions. We strap ourselves in a flying tin can with two hundred other people not because we know the pilot but because we believe that airline travel is safe. Our trust in these institutions depends on two factors: skills and ethics. We expect that the people who run these institutions know what they are doing, that they build and operate machines that work as they are supposed and that they are looking out for our welfare even though we are strangers. When one of these factors is weak or absent, trust breaks down and we either pay a high price in safety or a large welfare premium. Trust-deficient environments work in the favour of the rich and powerful, who can command premium treatment and afford welfare premiums. Poor people can command neither; which is why air travel is safer than train travel, which in turn is safer than walking by the roadside. Every modern society depends on trust in the skills and ethics of a variety of institutions such as schools and colleges, hospitals and markets. If we stopped believing in the expertise of our teachers, doctors and engineers, we will stop being a modern society. And as the institution among institutions, it is the duty of the state to ensure that all other institutions meet their ethical obligations. Sadly the state has failed in its regulatory role. Consequently, we cannot trust our schools to turn out good graduates, we cannot ensure that our colleges turn out well trained engineers and we cannot guarantee that our engineers will turn out good products. We are all aware of the consequences of ignoring corruption at all levels of society. While institutional failures in governance are obvious, the real problem lies deeper, in the failure of every day institutions that are quite apart from institutions that impinge on our lives only on rare occasions. For example we upset traffic system by making a number of queues instead of one. By disrupting order we waste lot of time. Patients are crying out of pain in government hospitals and they have to purchase medicines from private vendors while government provides them these. We find that testing machines are generally dysfunctional in public hospitals. Are not people stealing electric power and are not people resorting to deceit and fraud in their dealings with others? Are we not polluting clean and transparent water bodies? We become spectators on seeing commuters exchanging blows and showing disrespect to women. To all these aberrations we become dumb spectators. While passing along streets we do see irregular things being done and we turn our heads as if nothing concerns us. Sure, it is true that our lives are made more miserable by government officials demanding bribes for all sorts of things, but what about the everyday lying and cheating and breaking of rules with people who are strangers? Here we have to understand the origins of trust in daily interactions. There are perhaps only two social mechanisms for achieving trust in everyday interactions: traditions and institutions. By tradition, a historical lineage in which skills and norms are passed from generation to generation and reinforced by personal interactions between people in each generation. But since traditions aren’t based on universal norms applicable to all, knowledge and morals are often transmitted via the means of a ritual structure that constrains behaviour. We have mostly delegitimized the role of traditions. After all, traditions and other traditional forms of skill acquisition are as much means of exclusion as they are means of inclusion. In a society where skills should be accessible to all, we cannot take traditions as our model for the transmission of knowledge. One solution to the problematic character of traditions in the modern world is to create institutions that regulate anonymous interactions. We can replace traditional labour practices with employment contracts and traditional educational practices with entrance examinations. Rules replace rituals. Unfortunately rules are effective only to the extent people follow them in letter as well as in spirit. We are bad at both.