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Things improve if the consequences are real and personal

A lifetime of observing people and societies has taught me one thing: people only behave if the consequences of their actions are visited upon them, personally.

Why do Nairobi nightclub owners continue to bombard their neighbours in residential areas with music played at insane decibel levels? Because their own children are not studying for their examinations next door. If a noisy business opened next to the home of one of these club owners, he’d be the first to be up in arms. When he’s not suffering the consequences, he thinks like a blinkered business owner, maximizing his profit regardless of pain inflicted on anyone else. When his children suffer, he thinks like a parent.

If senior government officials were forced to seek medical care or education for their children only in their own country and only in public institutions, do you think standards of service in health or schooling would remain woefully low? They can look away from the problem only because it isn’t their problem. If it was personalised, there would be near-miraculous protection of funds and raising of standards. Better equipment and teachers’ pay rises would arrive virtually overnight.

Similarly, if senior people actually had to use public transport, would we get the lax regulation that we see today? Stringent safety standards would be imposed immediately and would be monitored diligently. Why? Only because the danger is now real and personal. When the repercussions are faced by others, road safety is just a statistic.

Why are leaders so quick to start wars? Because they merely issue the orders; they are rarely to be found in the battlefield. If there were a requirement that the leader’s adult offspring had to lead the fight on the field, only the most necessary and unavoidable wars would take place. All other options would be explored before raising arms. But the person for whom war takes place like a chess battle or video game is quick to escalate it.

What if chief executives were told they themselves would have to quit if they ever laid off more than an agreed proportion of staff? That would put paid to rampant hubris and over-recruitment when times are good, followed by knee-jerk layoffs when a downturn comes. Right now it’s way too easy to make the sending-home decision when other people are going home.

I’m not suggesting that these policies are practical, or should be implemented. I am only highlighting a universal truth: people are very gung-ho, indifferent to suffering and reckless when the consequences are visited upon others. When the effects of decisions or inaction are personal, watch how the reasoning changes.

American economist Armen Alchian once proposed that we should mount a small spear on every vehicle’s steering wheel, pointed directly at the driver’s heart. Then watch all that speeding and idiotic dangerous driving go down immediately. You get the point…

I have written here before: when the Big People suffer alongside the Little People, they fix problems. Otherwise they ignore them. Kenya offers exemptions from ordinary pain to all our Big People. They can dodge the traffic, evade the law, be exempted from taxes, hire private security, get free health treatment abroad. They have no incentive to fix any of our entrenched problems, since they never suffer their consequences.

For anyone interested in proper reform and progress at any level: first study where and to whom the consequences occur. If policymakers can dodge the consequences themselves, you will find them advocating all sorts of adventurous reforms. Equally, law enforcers will sit idle or lead the breach if they themselves are exempt from the laws.

To put it basically: people behave if they are made to behave. If you allow them to get away with misbehaviour, they misbehave in spades. You can’t just appeal to their higher natures; you have to impose consequences, and make them real and personal.

That is why organizations with VIP toilets most often have their regular washrooms in a parlous state; why folks with reserved parking slots are the least likely to think hard about the parking problem; why hate speech and incitement come easy when you don’t personally live on the border with those you hate.

So if you are a leader or have been given the privilege of making policy for others, think deeply about where the consequences will fall.

(Sunday Nation, 8 January 2016)

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