Follow the Rules

June 21, 2009

Yesterday I rode bicycles with woman who grew up in West Germany.  She just returned to the states from a bike ride across Germany with her sons.  She said interesting things.

I asked her what it was like growing up so close to the Eastern bloc and what it’s like now under one Germany.

She said it was weird and that the attitude of those in East Germany hasn’t changed much.  She said it was ingrained.  They aren’t very nice people. 

She gave an example of an innkeeper they came across on their bike ride.  He didn’t appreciate their business.  He didn’t seem to care or understand that he could do better business by being nice to his customers.

I said a lot of people in this country don’t understand the magic of capitalism, that by doing right by myself I have to do right by you so you’ll buy my stuff. 

She agreed and then said something that offered a rare glimpse into a strange culture that you only get from those who’ve experienced it firsthand. 

She said, “Yes! They don’t care how they treat others as long as they follow the rules.”  As she said it, she held one hand as if holding a rule book and the other hand was checking off the explicit rules that were being followed that allowed them to ignore the tacit rules of humanity.

These rules were identified by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (big thanks to EconTalk for the fantastic and FREE podcast series on Smith’s on this book) over 200 years ago.  The rules, or virtues, are prudence, propriety, justice and beneficence.  In my opinion, these are the four fingers of the invisible hand.  I will write more about that later.

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