Friday, July 1, 2022

Rules liberate

In his column today, Jonah Goldberg on the ubiquity of certain themes in fiction, science fiction for instance:
...[W]hile everything physical changes—Spaceships! Dragons! A Kryptonian bottle-city ruled by super-intelligent basset hounds!—the one constant is human nature. Even if the characters aren’t humans, the access point for the reader is their own humanity. Moreover, just because the characters aren’t humans doesn’t mean we don’t relate to them based on their internal humanity. The rabbits in Watership Down are only understandable because they’re people underneath their leporine facades. Pixar or Disney would never make a cartoon about bears or lions that is truthful about the nature of bears and lions, because nobody wants to take their kids to see vicious animals tear apart terrified cute animals or people. Simba and Winnie are compelling because they’re humans underneath the fur.

.... I think the eternal recurrence of themes is a much more prominent part of the job description for conservative writers. Take the above point about human nature being a constant. It’s a central tenet of conservatism and appears in the work of virtually every conservative writer I can think of. ....

One theme I’ve come back to time and time again is that rules—norms, laws, manners, morals, customs, ethics, best practices, etc.—exist as a way to outsource decision-making. .... Rules liberate us from having to reinvent the wheel in every situation. Twenty-three years ago, I argued that A Simple Plan, a largely ignored movie, was one of the most profoundly conservative films in recent memory. Why? Because the whole movie rests on the premise that the basic rules of right and wrong protect us from the unpredictable chaos we invite when we invent morality on the fly. As I’ve written, that’s the moral of Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and countless other tales of “stay on the path” morality. ....

Perhaps second only to the permanence of human nature, one of the most fundamentally conservative insights—small-c and big-C—is that reality bites back. You can’t simply use reason or will to impose your vision on the world without inviting the world pushing back in unexpected ways. While the forms of unintended consequences are by nature unpredictable, that there will be unintended consequences to any major reform or policy initiative is one of the most enduring conservative cautions going back, at least, to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Everywhere I look today, I see people on the left and right ignoring this basic principle. ....

...[A]cross the political spectrum, combatants are arguing as much from anger as from reason. The ubiquitous cultivation of rage in our politics is a siren song to venture off the path; to disregard the norms; to shout, “Screw the rules!” It’s a calling to take a shortcut on the mistaken belief that the rules are for suckers and that the enemies’ rule-breaking is a justification for your own.

.... Wisdom, if it tells us anything, tells us that the rules matter more for the hard cases, when passions are high and the shortcut to victory seems obvious. Indeed, we have rules for the hard cases precisely because it takes no courage to follow the rules when it’s easy. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues,” C.S. Lewis observed, “but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” .... (more)
Jonah Goldberg, "Do the Right Thing," The Dispatch, July 1, 2022.

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