Friday 23 December 2011

The enforcement of rules

This afternoon, at a supermarket checkout, I witnessed one of life's absurdities. Two people, together but paying for their shopping separately, were both buying alcohol, along with food. They both looked as though they were about 20. The gentleman was asked for proof of age, and produced it, so he was allowed to buy his alcohol. The lady was asked for proof of age, but had none, so she was not allowed to buy hers. Could the gentleman buy her alcohol instead? No, because he would be buying it for her, and that would be illegal if she were under 18. We were all held up while a supervisor was summoned. She confirmed the ruling, and the supermarket lost a sale of three bottles of bubbly.

If the gentleman had gone round the shop again, picked up identical bottles, and presented himself at a different checkout, he would have been able to buy them. Moreover, the lady might not have wanted the bottles for herself. They might have been to give as presents. In that case, the gentleman could have bought them, and given them as presents himself, all within the law. And it is entirely possible that once the couple got home, he would have opened a bottle from those he did buy and shared it with her. The law against buying alcohol for someone else, aged under 18, to consume off the premises of purchase is unenforceable.

I assume that the supermarket acted from an abundance of caution. The couple might have been agents provocateurs, checking on behalf of the police that the law was being enforced. If they had been, and if the supermarket had nodded the purchase through on grounds of common sense, the police might not have been sympathetic.

This raises a question. Is it possible to build common sense into rules? Suppose that an exception for this kind of situation had been written into the rules. The exception might be for situations where there was one person in a group who could prove that he was over 18, offering to step in and purchase alcohol that had been in the shopping basket of someone else who looked as though she was probably over 18, but who could not prove her age. That would not help when the second person looked as though she was under 18, but was in fact over 18, and the first person offered to be the purchaser in her stead. (Then the first person would just go round the shop again.) A comprehensive set of exceptions, that would have the same reach as common sense, would be impossible to compile. This does not make defined exceptions useless. They can eliminate many absurdities. But they are not likely to be a perfect solution.

I suspect that the main problem is that enforcers expect 100 per cent compliance. If they were prepared to ignore a small rate of rule-breaking, especially when the offence would be victimless (buying alcohol for someone who, if under 18, was not much under, or smoking in an enclosed public space), life would be better. Enforcers could tighten up if the rate of rule-breaking started to rise. We should not assume that all slopes would be slippery.


  1. Ah but Ve half Ways of making you laugh, weathether you like it or naughty naughty?

  2. In smaller societies and communities, the application of 'common sense'in everyday situations has to be simpler to negotiate, given that a broader perspective of all/most of the variants in any given situation will/may be accessible to the person who has to make decisions or judgemnts.

    In bigger societies/communities, we have laws, rules, for we all walk around and negotiate different situations with a good dose of anonymity. Then, instead of the decision maker in the first example, the onus of responsibility falls on the anonymous to negotiate their way in a system with many rules and codes.

    In the case cited, it appeared that neither of the young people had the wit or imagination to work out how to buy the 2 extra bottles of bubbly, in which case, they, perhaps should not be served alcohol in any circumstance!

  3. A second pointer would be that if laws and rules were made which allowed for every possible circumstance [re. purchase of alcoholic beverages by under-age persons], then the Charter would be extensive. The employees would need to have the memory of barristers and spend a year or more studying these texts, with all possible exceptions and variations.

    An alternative to this would be the application of the term, 'at your own discretion'. Again this is problematic, as discretion varies considerably from one person to another. Common sense, in this case, would not necessarily be present.

    Surely we just cannot institute for every mishap or malfunction in our culture.

    We start with a few basic tenets, [see verses 13-16, Exodus:20, Old Testament], and from these many others have germinated and grown, like the branches of a tree, altering through time and culture.

    Nor should verse 17 be overlooked, as covetousness also, if given good fertile earth in which to germinate, can also great trees and long strong branches grow!

  4. In your poem, 'Forest', listed under the heading, 'Planet Earth', you mention 'oaken hall/s'. It is difficult to see if this journey from 'tall tree' to the state of 'oaken hall' is written about with regret or not. No other reference to 'regret' or man's activities in the 'forest'is made, which makes me pose this question or query.

    There is also no 'comment' box in your poetry section. Is this intentional or an oversight?
    Best wishes for the New Year!

  5. In answer to Sunrise's comment above, I had not intended to express regret, just a gentle questioning. Pindar, Pythian 4, 263-269 happened to be in my head at the time of writing, because I had just been looking at Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (page 167 and the note on pages 217-218). This doubtless influenced the imagery, but I had no desire to echo the melancholy.

    There is no comment box simply because I had not thought to set one up on a website.

    The poem in question, and some other poems, are available at: