Following Rules, Breaking Rules

A lot of what’s wrong with the US these days has arisen from the breaking of rules. Fathers should be present in their children’s lives is one rule too often broken; CEOs should make quality products and provide good places to work, instead of trying to maximize next quarter’s share price is another; and George Washington’s farewell admonition, Avoid foreign entanglements, has been broken with dire results I’ve already blogged about.

Rules help us acquire competence in our endeavors. That’s why coaches harp on fundamentals to their players. They aren’t arbitrary proclamations from on high; rules are the distillation of the hard-earned wisdom of the past, in a form small enough to put in your pocket or hang over the door of the locker room. Rules can spare you from analysis paralysis, by giving you a course of action when you otherwise wouldn’t know what to do. Rules also reduce the need to guess what the other person will do. If you know the rules the other person is likely to follow, you can deal with him with minimal friction.

Villains break rules.

But. The villain doesn’t want a society where everyone else breaks rules. He wants everyone else to follow the rules he lays down for them. “You’ll never work in this town again.” “I’ll give you something to cry about.” “America is privileged to spend her blood …. to make the world safe for democracy.” Villains love people who will follow rules off a cliff.

And heroes break rules. James Bond has a license to kill; Capt. Kirk violates the prime directive; Thomas Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence. Remember, a hero doesn’t just have an adventure; he has an adventure and brings back a boon for his community, something that can make his people more prosperous and more free. Even if the boon has a physical component (a magic sword, advanced alien technology, whatever), the real boon is always a new way of doing things, new knowledge to apply to the problems of the day. In other words, the real boon is a new rule requiring the community to break an old one.