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Rules, norms and institutional erosion: Of non-compliance, enforcement and lack of rule of law

I have been living in Mexico for the better part of four years, after 20 years living in Canada. Trust me, it wasn’t an easy decision to move back. Canadians have a VERY strong sense of rule of law. I had never lived in a country where rules were so strictly followed. Drivers stop at the stop sign and follow traditional driving rules. Regular folks don’t throw their discarded items on the street, but instead of littering, they find a garbage can (available on a regular and frequent basis all over the cities). I lived in a country where compliance with regulations was the norm and expectation, and I now live in a country with such low rule of law and lack of enforcement capabilities, and a culture where lack of compliance with regulations is THE NORM, that there is very little expectation of legal enforcement of laws. As a result, living in Mexico has become for me a daily struggle.

I am a neoinstitutional theorist. I was educated in Canada, with the belief that there were rules and norms to comply with and where non-compliance would result in severe punishments. For me, not obeying rules is not in my DNA. I study rules, institutions and norms for a living, for crying out loud. So I experience a daily struggle, one that I am thinking my colleagues in the United States of America will start facing soon enough, given the recent election of DJT. This thread by Dr. Paul Musgrave clearly outlines the challenges that the US faces and how DJT is getting away with lies, taunting, protocol violations, to name just a few of the ridiculous things that the President-Elect of the US of A is doing since his election on November 8, 2016.

In responding to Paul’s thread, I offered some context for why I left behind the entire field of environmental regulation. If you’ve read anything by me in the last 5 years, you’ll be hard pressed to find something where I explicitly talk about environmental regulation (I have published on the topic, a couple of book chapters and my entire doctoral dissertation). For my PhD, I started studying environmental regulation in North America, with a primary focus on Mexico. I was interested in non-regulatory environmental policy instruments (you can read this paper of mine with Dr. Peter Nemetz in 2001 on the broad range of environmental policy instruments, and a conference paper with Dr. Kathryn Harrison and Dr. Mark Winfield in 2003 on the politics of information-dissemination policy instruments to get a sense of what I was interested in).

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on an integrated assessment of the restructuring of two cities’ industrial districts under multiple stressor pressures, which included environmental regulation, changes in land use, zoning regulations, technological change and shifts in consumer preferences. I still studied environmental regulation, but it was just ONE of many factors that I was studying. Regulation stopped being my main focus of research simply because I became very frustrated with studying rules and norms in an unruly country. I still study norms and rules, but I am more interested in those that are informal and that emerge from self-organization rather than those imposed by a central body, like local, provincial and federal governments.

What I am seeing right now in the US (a steady and slow erosion of democratic norms and a systematic violation of rules by the President Elect, in particular as though “they don’t apply to him“) is something that I’ve seen in other countries where I have studied formal and informal rules and institution building (and decay). This, in my view, is worrisome. If the US is going to want to continue having a functioning democracy where compliance with rules and norms is an expectation at the societal level, it’s going to have to do something major to stop this systematic rule violation.

My view is that we need to start doing some serious work on compliance with formal rules (I keep coming back to the Antonia Chandler Hayes and Abram Hayes work on compliance with international agreements), and find ways to create informal rules and norms where what the PEOTUS is doing is NOT considered normal (building on the work of the late Elinor Ostrom).

The problem is, as I said in my tweets, that we don’t really know much about how to deal with this systematic breach of rules and norms, particularly in a country where there is a higher expectation on a certain degree of compliance with regulations and formal rules. Democratic institutions are predicated as stabilizing precisely because we count on this compliance.

These are big questions, and ones that will probably make me come back to my old field of study: regulation theory.

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