One of my best friends keeps lists. Not lists of to-do things, like one might imagine (although it’s safe to assume he has those as well), but inventory lists, including one that tallies every movie he’s ever seen. I do such lists, and they include musical concerts, vacations, and the like. Some of mine were started after the fact, so I can’t attest to their completeness, but I try. Not to remotely my friend’s degree, but I understand the desire. Not everyone does. As we are fond of saying, if I have to explain it to you, you’ll never understand.

Here’s the thing with such lists: they require rules, and rules that go beyond basic column headings. His movie list uses IMDB’s unique identifier code for every entry, and includes when, where, and with whom. That’s not the hard part, as long as one is diligent and doesn’t “fall behind.”

Here’s an issue: What do you do if you tune into a movie after it started, or are caused by outside forces to stop watching it before its end? When does a movie qualify as “watched?”

So, he had to set rules. He allows 5 minutes of grace at the beginning of a movie, but a movie must be watched to its end in order to “count.” He also maintains a list of partially-watched movies. That list nags at him, motivating him to find those movies and complete them so they can be cleared from an annoying queue. This is a “tyranny of the list.” Once started, it compels perpetuation, and once rules are set, they drive behavior. To deviate from that behavior is to invalidate the completeness of the list, and without a quest for completeness, why even bother?

You’re free to opine on whatever pathology you want to ascribe to all this, but I understand the drive. I don’t have his degree of discipline in this matter, but I get it. To repeat, if I have to explain it to you, you’ll never understand.

Those of you who use iTunes for music may be aware of the “play” counter for each track in your music library. If you understand the concept of the list, you may have wondered the when and how of the counter’s tallying. I’ll save you the research: it doesn’t matter whether you start a song from the beginning, or use the slider to skip a section, or even start playback a few seconds from the end of the song. When it reaches zero time left, and switches to the next song in the queue, it tallies a play. If you listen to the entirety of a track, but know there are fifteen seconds of nothing left and click the right-arrow to jump to the next song, you don’t get the tally. If you right-arrow with less than ten seconds, you do. iTunes has “rules” for its tally, and any systematic inventory or tally necessitates the establishment of rules. iTunes’ rules aren’t “satisfying,” in that you can listen to almost the entirety of a song and not get credit for it but you can listen to 3 seconds of a song and get a +1.

This is the nature of impersonal, set-by-another rules – you have to live by and with them, even if they don’t make sense to you. Oftentimes, they make sense to whoever wrote them, or they serve someone else’s needs, priorities, and metrics. That’s typically their prerogative. If you are interacting with the rule-setter, and there are circumstances that warrant a rules exception or modification, you can argue your point and make your case.

Problems can arise, however, when a third party acts as gatekeeper (or tally-keeper, if you prefer). Oftentimes, that third party either has no insight as to the “why” of rules or has no discretion to allow exceptions, substitutions, or variations. This is another “tyranny of the list.” If you’ve ever applied for a mortgage, it’s not unlikely you’ve been presented with document update requests if a delay caused your closing date to slip from the 30th of the month to the 2nd of the next month. If a lender wants “most recent” bank statements, the ticking over of the calendar may cause the intermediary in the lender’s office to say “we can’t proceed until you update a dozen documents,” even across a difference of a couple days. The intermediary may understand there’s no practical reason for the demand, but is handcuffed by the rules and the lack of discretionary power.

Giving discretionary power to a subordinate comes with risk, and we see how increasingly risk-averse our society has become in the increased rigidity of the rules we routinely encounter. In things like zero tolerance policies and three strikes laws, we see rulemakers taking discretion out of the hands of intermediaries, even ones we’d expect to be highly qualified to exercise judgment, like school principles and court judges. As the distances and layers of separation between rules maker and end-user grow, the problems arising from “tyranny of the list” grow in likelihood and in impact. Layers of bureaucracy work contrary to adaptability, responsiveness, and the ability to apply direct insight to a particular situation. It’s why big companies have trouble keeping up with more-nimble startups, and why market forces have not resulted in total industrial consolidation. The bigger an organization, the more subject it becomes to “tyranny of the list.” It’s also why central-planning and heavy-control forms of government can never serve populations as well as smaller governments that support and prioritize individual liberty.

Sadly, even many who have personally experienced the tyranny of the list still hold onto the fallacy that more control is better. This is the result of risk aversion, and the unwillingness to trust strangers to manage things between themselves, to trust intermediaries with autonomy, or to trust the free market to produce better results than central planning, even though the evidence is overwhelming that it does.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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