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In Era of Broken Rules, Society Breaks

'Make 'em up as you go along' just doesn't work.

October 11, 2002|ALAN CHARLES RAUL | Alan Charles Raul is a Washington lawyer.

Rules are for chumps. That was obviously the prevailing ethos (if you can call it that) of the Tyco and Enron plutocrats and their enablers. And likewise for the sticky-fingered Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), who apparently also saw his opportunities and took 'em.

But so too for the New Jersey Supreme Court. No small-minded rules were going to stand in the way of letting those jurists mete out justice. They replaced Torricelli on the Nov. 5 ballot with former Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg on the theory that, well, just because the state Legislature allowed substitutions only up to 51 days before the election didn't mean the court couldn't allow 33 days instead.

But New Jersey is hardly the only court to take the "rule" out of the rule of law. In the case involving handicapped golfer Casey Martin's use of a golf cart, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to toss out the PGA Tour's rules and make its own instead. Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting, said Congress did not authorize "misty-eyed judicial supervision of such a revolution" of the rules of competition.

In the 1990s, of course, there was a revolution in the business realm. None of the old rules about stock markets and valuation held up. Even dress codes didn't survive the decade. And a lot of executive suites ended up pushing "business casual" well beyond the loss of suits and ties. During the dot-com era, with its unreal market caps, billion-dollar options and glorification of the unconventional, how could you expect corporate executives to act more than "relatively" honestly?

Rules were for chumps.

After all, if an openly lying U.S. president could just about get away with it, why shouldn't everybody else go for it too?

How did all this happen?

In 1966, Harvard theologian Joseph Fletcher materially advanced the end of a rules-based society by writing an important book of philosophy called "Situation Ethics: The New Morality." In it, he elaborated a morality without rules; in short, moral relativism. Not quite "whatever feels good," but close.

Then Thomas A. Harris popularized the ideas of Eric Berne in the fabulously successful "I'm OK--You're OK," which exalted self-realization and rationalized self-indulgence.

There was also the Vietnam War's destruction of the social fabric and the free-love generation's assault on authority figures, social conventions and bourgeois rules of behavior.

In a nutshell, self-gratification beat out self-discipline, and it was only a matter of time before codes of personal conduct and the rule of law would be corrupted by fuzzy, "situational" thinking.

There was one place that publicly bucked the trend. In New York City, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani--aided by Police Commissioner William J. Bratton--attacked such "quality of life" crimes as graffiti, aggressive panhandling and turnstile jumping.

Were these as bad as murder or assault? Of course not. But enforcing rules, even petty ones, fosters a culture of compliance. Rules, ritual and tradition help keep our baser selves in check.

Rules, though, need keepers. They used to be the judges, lawyers, accountants and, most important, parents. Now, all of us have fallen down on the job. We have relied too much on legal enforcement to maintain the social order and not enough on old-fashioned self-discipline reinforced by social stigma.

Maybe we can make some headway against greedy individualism by refocusing on good manners, rehabilitating some minor social rules and getting people back into the habit of complying with them. Getting rid of "business casual" is my vote for a good place to start. It may not prevent the next Enron, but it can't hurt until we think of something better.

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