‘Thin’ and ‘thick’ rules of regulation: Cayton reviews Daston’s history of what we live by
Harry Cayton reviews history of what we live by
Lorraine Daston explores fascinating examples of rulemaking throughout history in her new book, ‘Rules: A Short History of What We Live By.' In this article, Harry Cayton discusses what regulators can learn from Daston's work.

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Does any child think, “When I grow up, I really want to be a regulator”?

I doubt it. In my case, I fell into regulation through intellectual curiosity and a timely job opportunity. I soon found that the combination of strategic policy objectives and an obsession with the details of procedure were a compelling and unusual mix.

These two roles – social policy and detailed procedures – reflect what Lorraine Daston, in her new book, Rules: A Short History of What We Live By, calls “thick” and “thin” rules. Thick rules are general instructions: “Always follow the highway code.” Thin rules are detailed and specific: “Don’t exceed the speed limit of 50 miles per hour.” We might say that the legislation within which regulators operate are thick rules, while the regulations that they impose on others are thin.

There are three kinds of rules, Daston says: tools of measurement, models or paradigms, and laws. The first two we can understand in two meanings of the word ‘ruler,’ which means both a stick for measuring length and a person empowered to make laws.

Models are examples to be followed, guides to making things properly or to living well. The classical architecture of Rome, with its concentration on balance and proportion, became the model for architecture in the Renaissance and Palladio, who created the neoclassical style, became himself a model for other architects to emulate. Models of conduct – St. Benedict or the Buddha for example – also provide a thick rule for behavior.

Daston’s history is full of intriguing examples described with humor and an enthusiasm for the absurdity of much rulemaking. We learn about the history of recipe books, the regulation of traffic in 18th-century Paris, early computers (originally human assistants to astrologers who calculated the movements of the stars), and sumptuary laws in medieval Italy prescribing the fabrics to be worn by different occupations and the length of the toe of a shoe.

Often, but not always, the historical trend is from thick to thin rules with our lives being managed in finer and finer detail. If you have ever been in a Tesla car, you will know what I mean; independent choice has been eradicated in the interests of safety.

The historical development of more and more detailed rules went along with the scientific, mathematical, and moral discoveries of the Enlightenment. Newton’s “laws” of gravity and motion, and the idea of natural laws inherent to humanity or divinely ordained, reinforced the belief that rules were part of a naturally ordered society governed not by monarchs but by “the rule of law,” binding both lawmakers and subjects to the same set of laws. The rule of law is still being challenged today by autocratic politicians across the world: Putin in Russia, Trump in the U.S., Orbán in Hungary, and Erdogan in Turkey to name a few.

For Daston, the thinnest of thin rules is the algorithm, a specific formula for solving a specific problem. Hand looms and computing, she suggests, went the same way, from large-scale acts of human craft to thin rules for small acts done by many workers increasingly replaceable by machines. Just think about self-service supermarket checkouts. Just do what you are told and “place your item in the bagging area.”

In the chapter on regulations and their relationship to rules, she memorably describes regulations as “Rules with their sleeves rolled up…rules in action.” Regulations don’t just tell us what we should do – they require us to do it.

But as all regulators know, the enforcement of regulations if people are unwilling is beyond our grasp. Compliance is difficult to achieve and hard to measure. Where I think tomorrow’s hope lies for the regulation of people is in the long-discarded model or paradigm, the person whose example we admire and wish to copy.

A study by the Professional Standards Authority in 2018 found that a sense of professional identity in health practitioners came not solely from being regulated but from many influences, an important one of which was the models of behavior set by colleagues and team leaders on a daily basis. Models can of course be bad as well as good, but we still need Daston’s three rules – laws, regulations, and models – to keep us on the straight and narrow.

If, as a person who works in regulation, you’d like to know more about why you even exist, you should read this fascinating book.

Harry Cayton is a sought-after global authority on regulatory practices who created the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and pioneered right-touch regulation. He is a regular Ascend Voices contributor. 


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Harry Cayton
Written byHarry Cayton
Harry Cayton is a sought-after global authority on regulatory practices who created the PSA and pioneered right-touch regulation. He is a regular Ascend contributor.


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