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Against the rules

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I was never a great fan of rules and regulations. When I was at school, a great time ago, I suggested many ways of making our lives easier by simplifying the rules of games like cricket, and even chess. But nobody would listen. These arbitrary rules were almost sacred, and they seemed to have no purpose except to make our lives narrower, more rigid, and more difficult.

Now, of course, I understand that the whole point of rules is to make our lives narrower, more rigid and more difficult, and to save us from unregulated activities that might be creative or fun. We are par excellence the rule-making species and the book of rules, written or carved in stone, is one of the fundamental human inventions.

In England in the 1500s a book was published setting out the rules of the new game of tennis, which was becoming popular then. This book instantly became the subject of furious and even violent disputes among the aristocrats who loved the game. This was a century of gigantic upheaval and political change in Europe, including plagues, invasions, the collapse of empires and the ever-popular wars of religion. How could anyone become obsessed by the rules of tennis at a time like this? But they did.

When we see animals apparently obeying rules, we call it instinct, and perhaps it is the same with us. Kids seem to make up rules for their games almost instinctively. The difference is that we invent our human rules consciously, out of thin air. If we don’t like them we can change them, and we do. You can see the whole of human history as a struggle over the rules — all our wars, religious conflicts, political parties and ideological disagreements are about rules. Congress is nothing but a bunch of people (mostly men) arguing about the rules of the game. Most of the time it’s just harmless fun, like debating the designated hitter rule in baseball. But not always.

There are small rules and big rules. The big rules, to which we give the rather grand name of laws, are designed to save us from ourselves and each other: driving rules, gun laws, building codes, who can fly an airliner, how much lead should be in our water, how votes should be counted in a democracy and so on. These are essentially the only reason we have governments at all. Collectively they add up to the Rule of Law — symbolized by all those intimidating rows of books in an old-fashioned lawyer’s office. The rule of law is fragile, like any other, and can be changed or abolished at any time. This would leave only one rule, the survival of the fittest, and we would have a totalitarian dictatorship before Labor Day.

And now, suddenly, shockingly, we need to think about the almost forgotten Rules of War. The very phrase “Rules of War” sounds crazy, like Rules about Fighting in Bars. But they do exist and can be broken like any others.

Small rules help to make the world a safe and orderly place where everyone knows what the designated hitter is supposed to do. But the Rule of Law and the Rules of War, remote and abstract as they seem, are infinitely more important. Without them we may lose the whole game.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.