I watched the Netflix TV series “Better Call Saul”, which can be seen as a defense of rule utilitarianism.
The protagonist is a con artist named Jimmy who has all sorts of schemes to evade regulations and/or steal property for the benefit of himself and his friends. The show’s gimmick is that the producers portray Jimmy as a kind of lovable thug, who feels guilty when his actions cause others pain. He bends the rules of society, but only when he thinks the gain will outweigh the cost. (At least in the early seasons.)
Unfortunately, Jimmy’s actions almost always seem to backfire. They lead to all sorts of repercussions that make Jimmy feel guilty. But he recovers quickly and embarks on his next adventure. His girlfriend thinks he needs a psychiatrist, but he actually needs a philosopher.
Jimmy’s problem is that he’s adopted a crude form of utilitarianism, trying to judge every action on its merits. He doesn’t understand why society needs rules to constrain behavior.
Here are some recent policy examples:
1. Some pundits have called for filling the Supreme Court with sympathetic judges by expanding the court from 9 to 15 members. They do not understand that any transitional benefit of additional judges ruling as they wish would be more than offset by the degradation of our political system.
2. Some Republicans tried to cancel the 2020 election because they thought Trump would be a better president than Biden. They failed to realize that even if this were true, the cost of transforming the United States into a banana republic would far outweigh any short-term benefit.
3. Some Democrats have spent money promoting GOP primary candidates who claimed the 2020 election was stolen, assuming those candidates would be easier to defeat in the fall. They have failed to understand that lasting political success can only come from the opposing side adopting some of your points of view. (FDR, Reagan and Thatcher are good examples.)
4. Some economists think now would be a good time to raise the inflation target to 3%, forgetting that the added benefit of a little more inflation at this point would be more than offset by the cost of a loss of political credibility, which would make it more difficult to apply monetary policy in the future.
5. Foreign policy decisions too often reflect ad hoc response to today’s headlines, not carefully studied mutual defense institutions with rules such as NATO.
When I make these arguments, I often get the following rejection: “All is lost anyway. The system is hopelessly corrupt. So why not do the same?
This is basically the attitude of all scammers in the world. Other people are corrupt, so why should I play by the rules? Others cheat on their taxes, so why should I pay mine?
Adam Smith said there is much ruin in a nation. You may think the United States is hopelessly corrupt, but try spending time in the Congo, Afghanistan, or North Korea. I assure you things can go much lower, and will go even lower, if we don’t try to meet the standards.
But it’s not easy. Jimmy’s brother Chuck is portrayed as the adult in the play. He’s a rule follower, a utilitarian of strict rules and is portrayed as a boring party pooper (and other terms I can’t use here – we have rules!) Jimmy is the fun guy – he’s why we watch. So I warn you not to expect thanks if you fight this battle for ethical standards. Even your ideological soulmates will consider you a traitor when you refuse to take shortcuts to help your side win political battles.
PS. This NYT Article makes a few related points:
The Thielites want to see government hollowed out – to eject the administrative state and erase its memory – not to enhance freedom, but to make our nation’s current system of exploitation more conducive to coercion. They wish to overthrow the liberal technocratic elite only to be able to install their own: a more capable, docile and unfettered elite.
What this view is not is a conservatism of limits. It’s rather Promethean, progressive, in the most basic sense: he deplores any constraint on his power to govern, to shape the future, to despoil the planet, to innovate and to develop the American economy. All limits – pluralism, democracy, ecology, human frailty – must be overcome to win the global game, reassert American dominance and dispel our decadent malaise.