Enforcing Rules Is Important

A while ago on a German train station, I saw a conductor telling a group of people that smoking is prohibited in this station. He was laughed at and ignored. Later on a passenger next to me on the train told the conductor, how glad he was that he stood up to the smoking people and reminded them of the rules. The conductor replied that it is sadly not in his power to enforce the smoking ban in German stations – and not his job for that matter. This would be the job of DB Security, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, who (together with the German Federal Police) is responsible for the security of German train stations and have the means to enforce the rules. The passenger complained that all the security personnel  making their rounds do rarely remind  people of the smoking ban and even more rarely enforce it. An observation I can confirm. The conductor shrugged “A lot is changing” to which the passenger replied “Unfortunately”.

We could now dismiss this little story as an unimportant chat of people unhappy about change, but I think there is more to it. It is not a story about change but about rules and how unenforced rules makes people unhappy.

Another rule on German stations is that beggaring is prohibited. But instead of enforcing the ban with security personnel, Frankfurt central station just uses an automated announcement advising people to be extra cautious due to organised gangs of beggars. It seems that DB Security and the Federal Police is unwilling to enforce the rules, leaving people feeling unprotected. While smoking and beggaring are mere annoyances, pick-pocketing is a threat to people’s security. Don’t get me wrong, in general I feel totally safe at German stations, so the problem is rather small.

But a lot of small things may tilt a general public’s opinion about certain things. And this is the core of the story: It is not about the actual enforcement of rules or the actual safety, it is how people feel about it that shapes opinion. Germany has a lot of rules, some say we are obsessed with legalism. I wouldn’t go that far, although I agree that we may have quite a number of rules that could be scrapped. But that’s not the point. The point is rather that rules, no matter how ridiculous, must be enforced so that people feel that there is a power that is in charge and protects ordinary citizens without the means (and permission for that matter!) to enforce the rules themselves. This is the most basic principle of every modern state that is governed by the rule-of-law: There are rules and laws and the state’s executive power enforces them. Failing to do so, for whatever the reason, makes people feel that the government is weak, lets bad boys and bullies do what they like and is unable/unwilling to protect the rights of the citizens. The problem is that rules that are actually enforced, i.e. most of them, do not get the attention of the public. It is the not enforced rules, no matter how seemingly unimportant, that shape the opinion about the power of the executive to uphold the rule-of-law.

In order to have people trust in the rule-of-law, it must be enforced completely and not just the big parts. Every tiny rule is important in the perception of the public. If the state (or private outfits like DB Security) is unable or unwilling to enforce things like a smoking ban on German stations, it would be better to scrap the ban altogether. Then the wrath of people annoyed by smokers would be directed towards the operator of the station, but it would not be perceived as the lack of rule enforcement and not eroding confidence in the rule-of-law.

Rationally, there is little wrong with the rule-of-law and rules enforcement in Germany (let’s not talk about the Eurocrisis and the migrant influx for a second), but it is the people’s perception and feelings that shape opinion and thus policy. Europe’s problem with the right-wing, eurosceptic, xenophobic insurgent parties stems exactly from this perception, that (some) rules are no longer enforced, leaving ordinary citizens exposed to all kinds of wrong-doers. We need to see that the problem is not German “legalism” and “rules obession”, but rather the lack of it. Yes, some rules are undoubtedly stupid, annoying, anachronistic, plain wrong or besides the point, but then the solution is to change or abolish these rules and not ignore them, because ignoring the rules is ignoring the rule-of-law.

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I write about economics and politics. I take Ordnungspolitik seriously. While not blogging, I study monetary unions for my doctorate.