More or Better Rules Will Not Save Us

In life, we go through a cycle in our attitudes toward rules. Most of us, when we are young, are impatient with “This is how we do it,” and have impatient and idealistic conceptions of what can be done. In middle age, most of us are more accepting of the rules. And the elderly often cling to the rules, defending them as traditions, the very foundation of “our” culture.

There was a popular song by Bruce Hornsby, from 1986, called “That’s Just the Way It Is.” The chorus and second verse go like this:

That's just the way it is; Some things'll never change
That's just the way it is; Ha, but don't you believe them

Said, “Hey little boy you can't go, Where the others go
Cause you don't look like they do”

Said, “Hey, old man how can you stand, To think that way
Did you really think about it, Before you made the rules?”

I’m old now (40 with 20 years of experience, you might say), but I never “made the rules.” The rules were things that had a separate and superior existence; “that’s just the way it is.” One notion of conservatism is simply a commitment to the rules that have come down to us from the past. Part of this is a reverence for tradition, and part of it is a skepticism that progressive reason — what Hayek called “the counterrevolution of science” in a book of that name — understands enough of the complexity of social systems to make things better. William F. Buckley Jr., in fact, defined conservatism as “standing athwart history, shouting, ‘Stop!’”

But that’s also why Hayek wrote “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” and why I’m not a conservative, either. Sometimes the rules really are bad. Hornsby’s example is hard to argue with: Racial segregation in my hometown of Gotha, Florida, was a full-fledged apartheid system in the 1950s and 1960s. It had no rational basis, and it was actively evil, a perpetuation of slavery in the form of Jim Crow “rules.” Even if people did “think about it before [they] made” those rules, they were wrong. Those were bad rules, and they needed to be changed.

There are important elements of truth, then, to both kinds of skeptical claims. It is right to be skeptical that groups of zealous reformers are going to make things better. And it is right to question the traditions that come to us from a flawed historical past. What to do?

I wonder if there is not a fundamental change afoot, one that results from a conception of rules and morals that looks a lot like video games. If you play a video game, there will be a set of rules. Those rules may be arbitrary and contingent, in the sense that they are specific to the game, but they are also clear and can be written down, in list form. The rules of physics, not just of social interaction and reward, are not just something we can make up. You may be able to fly (as in “Second Life”), there may be magic or spells that can transcend “normal” physics (as in “Runescape” or “WOW”), and there may be no social consequences for bad behavior (as in “Grand Theft Auto”).

Some games actually allow gamers to rewrite some, or all, of the rules for their own versions of the game. The website OpenSource.com defines “open gaming” this way:

Games and software are similar because they are both collections of rules. Just as software is really a set of rules that determines what is and is not possible for users to do with a computer program, a game is a set of rules that defines what players can and can't do in pursuit of a goal.

Open source software is software anyone can modify and enhance because its source code is publicly available (and because its creators have given everyone permission to alter it). Open source games are likewise games that players can adapt to fit their preferences. The open nature of these games allows players to build on designers' ideas.

Taking an open source approach to games means recognizing that the rules governing what people can and can't do are arbitrary — they are not permanent, and people should feel free to tweak and tinker with them. Like writing laws, creating games is the practice of crafting the rules by which people can act.

That’s fine for games. It’s really fun to be able to change the rules, remaking the norms and physics of the world we live in. In the movie series The Matrix, the heart of the plot turns on the recognition by humans that the rules are arbitrary and can be rewritten.

In fact, the rules get rewritten often, to fix glitches or change the rules in a way that benefits the “agents” that control that virtual universe. In the original (1999) movie, Neo sees a black cat. Twice.

Neo: Whoa. Déjà vu. [Everyone freezes right in their tracks]
Trinity: What did you just say?
Neo: Nothing. Just had a little déjà vu.
Trinity: What did you see?

Cypher: What happened?
Neo: A black cat went past us, and then another that looked just like it.
Trinity: How much like it? Was it the same cat?
Neo: It might have been. I'm not sure.
Morpheus: Switch! Apoc!
Neo: What is it?
Trinity: A déjà vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.

The gamer view can transcend the game context, of course. In fact, the gamer view of rules is precisely what Hayek saw as scientism in The Fatal Conceit:

Morals, including especially, our institutions of property, freedom and justice, are not a creation of man’s reason but a distinct second endowment conferred on him by cultural evolution — runs counter to the main intellectual outlook of the twentieth century. The influence of rationalism has indeed been so profound and pervasive that, in general, the more intelligent an educated person is, the more likely he or she now is not only to be a rationalist, but also to hold socialist views (regardless of whether he or she is sufficiently doctrinal to attach to his or her views any label, including ‘socialist’)….

Intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilisation offers to deliberate design rather than to following traditional rules, and likewise to suppose that we can, by exercising our reason, eliminate any remaining undesired features by still more intelligence reflection, and still more appropriate design and ’rational coordination’ of our undertakings.… And since they have been taught that constructivism and scientism are what science and the use of reason are all about, they find it hard to believe that there can exist any useful knowledge that did not originate in deliberate experimentation, or to accept the validity of any tradition apart from their own tradition of reason. Thus [they say]: ‘Tradition is almost by definition reprehensible, something to be mocked and deplored’.

This conception of rules, and the implicit idea that the origin of rules is intentional human design, means that the rules can always be improved. Only a cretin or evil troll would oppose this project of improvement. It is difficult to accept that rules in the social world around us are not clear, don’t exist in any clear list, and cannot be arbitrarily changed by simply rewriting the “code” of interaction.

I’m not blaming video games, mind you. But the idea that there was any “we” who made the rules, or that those rules can be changed, seems to be an important part of the modern constructivist mindset. Hayek’s worry that “we” do a bad job of explaining the problem is even more pressing today than when he wrote The Fatal Conceit. Society is much closer to a complex biological organism than to a matrix of engineering principles with explicit, contingent rules.

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Michael Munger

Michael Munger is Professor of Economics at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research. His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University.