Why rules are awesome and exceptions suck

Deborah over at The Hand Mirror has an excellent post from a while back on how a tiny exception in Act’s proposed tax cuts devalues women’s labour, by hitting part-timers (who are disproportionately female) with extra tax. This hits on a vein that’s essential to my feelings about not only feminist thought, but also queer rights, race relations, disability issues, and even economic productivity/fairness, so I’d like to expand on Deborah’s objection to an exception that hurts women more than men.

This is a great example of why in all types of complex systems- from Human Rights laws to the tax code to social progression- ideas that can be elegantly expressed as rules that have no exceptions make the best guidelines to live by. (I should point out that adding just a few “inclusions” to a restrictive rule is effectively the same thing as making a more inclusive rule with lots of exceptions, it just cuts down on admin costs a little more.1)

Our current tax code is riddled with exceptions and vulnerabilities that allow the wealthy to pay about the same tax as everyone else while we’re forking out for the extra administration required by a progressive tax system. I would greatly like to ditch every single exception, and perhaps lower the overall take a little, or pay out some more significant welfare- perhaps even a universal basic income- instead of adding costly exceptions, like the proposal Act has for taxing part-time labour more than full-time. This is typical economics-before-social-concerns thinking that I’ve lamentably come to expect from act- part-time work enables people to contribute to charities, raise kids, maintain a healthy partnership, work on their own car/computer/hobby, all of which have value that’s external to usual economics.

But it’s not just tax where this is important. This principle informs so many decisions about progressive policy: Violence is bad- even if it’s a parent hurting a kid. Marriage is between two people that love each other- even if they’re the same sex. Sex is a choice- for both genders, not just for men. Qualifications and skills should determine pay- even if you’re not one of the straight white guys.

I’ve argued before that exceptions are okay in cases where they combat pervasive, systematic discrimination. I still believe this- but I believe that we can often achieve the aims held by an exception by using a rule, if we’re smart enough. For instance, the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand helps collect the capital and rights to natural resources that fund business ventures by Maori, for Maori- and the focus on building these resources in the long-term fights inequality in a systemic way that is so much more effective than mere golden handshakes over historical grievances could be. It also builds awareness and importance of New Zealand history, and the role that both colonial and Maori influences played in forming our nation as it is now.

1 Yes, I’m looking at you, heterosexual-only marriage laws!

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