Rules and Rule Makers

Rules are devised so that at each new juncture in life we won’t have to think through everything all over again. Usually, there’s little need to consider the ramifications of each new decision. So we just plug in the rule and get on with it, and things go swimmingly. For example, wise people long ago figured out that “please and thank you” go a long way towards ridding social interactions of needless friction. So we employ those lubricants, those rules, without thinking about them.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once observed: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Rules facilitate that. Rules simplify our lives, and goodness knows we need simplicity.

Rules, however, sometimes don’t suffice. Sometimes something novel happens for which we don’t have a ready-made rule, and we’re forced to think. If the new something sticks around, wecreate a new rule, if we can, to accommodate it. All that thinking can get uncomfortable.

As a rule, I don’t attend the cinema; I wait for movies to come to cable. So it was only recently that I screened 2008’s The Dark Knight. I remembered that six years ago the film was taken seriously by serious people, so I watched the recent AMC showing of it. The flick touched on rules:

THE JOKER: You have these rules. And you think they'll save you.

BATMAN: I have one rule.

THE JOKER: Then that's the one you'll have to break … to know the truth.

BATMAN: Which is?

THE JOKER: The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.

It’s a pity that the fine actor who played the Joker isn’t around to play more roles. His autopsy showed that he was either unaware of an important rule or didn’t care about breaking it. The rule Heath Ledger broke is a variation of the rule about forbidden fruit: don’t eat it.

But is the Joker’s claim true, that the only sensible way to live is without rules? I suppose if one were an anarchist it’d be true, but for those who prefer civilization it’s quite insane. Yet, even those who aren’t anarchists can resent rules. One wants to do what one wants to do; rules can stymie that pursuit. One wants to be “free,” but rules can limit one’s options, cramp one’s style. (“I’ve gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me,” the crooner croons.)

In Joe Wright’s 2012 Anna Karenina we hear this exchange at the opera between Count Vronsky and his sister-in-law Varya:

VRONSKY: Will you call on Anna?

VARYA: Oh, Alexei . . . I’m fond of you . . . but . . .

VRONSKY: For God’s sake, Anna isn’t a criminal!

VARYA: I’d call on her if she’d only broken the law. But she broke the rules.

One might conclude that adultery wasn’t against the law in 19th Century Czarist Russia. However, laws are rules, the ultimate inrules. Break the law and you become a criminal. Criminality is dealt with using the ultimate penalties, like capital punishment. But when you break the “lesser rules,” like customs, manners, protocols, norms, and such, you merely become unfit for polite society, like Anna -- you don’t become a criminal, just a pariah.

Some fancy themselves superior beings; they’re above the rules; the rules don’t apply to them. For them, what King Henry V said in wooing Katherine de Valois resonates: “O Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings. Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion. We are the makers of manners, Kate.”

Some seem to identify with old Hank; they make their own rules. So they break the old rules; park their cars in spaces reserved for the handicapped, cut corners, even walk on the grass. They convince themselves that breaking this or that rule won’t hurt anybody. On that, they can sometimes be right. But they should ask themselves: What if everyone did it?

Sometimes we must break rules, such as during an epidemic when we forego the obligatory handshake upon meeting someone. Some, like Donald Trump, don’t like to shake hands with anyone, ever. The Donald’s Rule is to not shake hands. Some of us adopt his rule during flu season.

When we break a rule, the world usually doesn’t come crashing down around us. We might then see the rule as unnecessary, arbitrary, and even stupid. Rules can be stifling, stultifying; they can seem to be nothing more than the means by which the Rule Makers try to control us. (Why do the Rule Makers want to control us?)

Some rules are guides for steering the ship of state. The big aim of such rules is, in part, to establish and preserve societal order. As important as societal order is, there must be a balance between rules and Freedom.

During the last few years we’ve seen tsunamis of rules wash over America. Everywhere we look there are new rules; laws, regulations, campus speech codes, etc. Some of the dumber recent rules are those of local governments that regulate e-cigarettes, the effluent of which is water vapor. (You see the problem is all that sticky excess humidity.)  As necessary as they are, rules can be too intrusive, and there can be too damned many of them.

I’m a fan of "Stossel" on Fox Business. The libertarian Mr. Stossel continually rails about rules. He displays bales of printed rules that he likes to topple over and throw around his studio set. His bales of paper are the rules unelected regulators have created just for us. The reason for these rules is to effectuate and implement other rules, like ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank. Far from simplifying our lives so that civilization can advance, as per Mr. Whitehead, these rules bog us down with complication upon complication.

You may have heard: “Rules are rules.” The thing about rules is that they’re supposed to be for everyone, otherwise rules would be mere suggestions. But some are exempted from the rules; they get carve-outs, waivers, and special dispensations to skirt the rules. Take the Tax Code. The federal tax code is nothing if not an immense, ungodly collection of rules, and most of its rules concern granting exceptions to the rule that one pays one’s taxes.

It’s ironic that while the masses are beset with new rules, the Rule Makers exempt themselves. The rules are for us, not them. An example of this was when members of Congress, like Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), exempted their staffs from ObamaCare. America’s Rule Makers will not be confined within the weak list of a country’s rules, even if they themselves made the rules. Any legislator who is not willing to abide by the rules he enacts isn’t fit for office. When they exempt themselves from the rules they enact, they show contempt for us.

The danger for the individual living in America’s “Age of Rules” is that the average citizen can very easily become a criminal. All it takes for a citizen to become a criminal is that final signature on a piece of legislation. There’s a rule for everything nowadays. (Don’t make me a criminal; being a pariah is good enough for me.)

The danger for society posed by these mountains of new rules spewing forth from government is that they create disrespect for the very idea of rules. If every part of your life can be regulated and ruled, even by unelected bureaucrats, it’s oppressive. Many of us just want to be left alone, but our Rule Makers think they can make demands of us merely because we exist.

Without rules, chaos rules; “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” We need rules; Man is too fallen to live without rules. So anything that casts doubt on the need for rules is trouble. But doubt is being cast, and by the very people who make the rules. With the congressional elections almost upon us, Americans will soon get another chance to install a better class of Rule Maker in Congress. America needs new lawmakers who have reverence for the law, for the rules.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

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