A controversial incident in the ongoing 2010 World Cup in South Africa illustrates the importance of having strong norms to complement formal rules, not only in sports but also in development, Bill Easterly says.
Easterly is referring to how Luis Suarez of the Uruguay team illegally blocked a “sure Ghana” goal using his hands. The incident happened during the last few minutes of the quarterfinal game and cost Ghana the match, the New York University professor says. Suarez was ejected according to rules, Ghana missed the penalty kick and Uruguay subsequently won the game during the penalty kick-off.
This sparked debate among football fans on whether or not Suarez cheated. For his part, Easterly says he felt prevailing norms in the football world were not fierce enough to have prevented Suarez from intentionally breaking the rules.
“Unfortunately for Ghana and for a lot of cheating victims in business, norms have to reflect a wide and deep consensus of what is right and a willingness to punish the cheater,” Easterly points out. “If everyone agreed now that Suarez had cheated and will ever after see him as the equivalent of a thieving child-beater, then maybe he would not have used his hands in the first place. Unfortunately, as often happens in developing countries, neither the rules nor the norms were strong enough to prevent cheating and we are the worse for it.”
Easterly says norms, in both sports and economics, spontaneously evolve to accommodate the needs of fans, players and, in this case, economics.
“Norms play a useful role in not only strengthening the incentives to keep the formal rules, but also in complementing the formal rule-formal penalty system,” he explains. “Norms can handle the subtleties of when intentionally breaking the rules and accepting the penalty is OK and when it is not.”