I’ve been watching the Netflix TV series “Better Call Saul“, which can be seen as a defense of rules utilitarianism.

The protagonist is a con man named Jimmy who has all sorts of schemes to evade regulations and/or steal property to benefit himself and his friends. The gimmick in the show is that the producers portray Jimmy as a sort of lovable rogue, who feels guilty when his actions cause pain in others. He bends society’s rules, but only when he thinks the gain will exceed 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 cause Jimmy to feel guilty. But he soon gets over it, and then is on to his next adventure. His girlfriend thinks he needs a psychiatrist, but he actually needs a philosopher.

Jimmy’s problem is that he has adopted a crude form of utilitarianism, attempting to judge each action on its merits. He fails to understand why society needs rules to constrain behavior.

Here are some recent political examples:

1. Some pundits have called for packing the Supreme Court with sympathetic judges by expanding the court from 9 to 15 members. They fail to understand that any transitory benefit from extra judges ruling in the way they wish would be more than offsets by the degradation of our political system.

2. Some Republicans tried to overturn the 2020 election because they thought Trump would be a better president than Biden. They failed to understand that even if this were true, the cost of turning the US into a banana republic would greatly outweigh any short-term benefit.

3. Some Democrats spent money promoting GOP primary candidates that claimed the 2020 election was stolen, assuming that those candidates would be easier to defeat in the fall. They failed to understand that durable political success only comes from making the opposing party adopt some of your views. (FDR, Reagan and Thatcher are good examples.)

4. Some economists believe this would be a good time to raise the inflation target to 3%, forgetting that the extra benefit from a bit more inflation at this juncture would be more than offset by the cost of a loss in policy credibility, making it harder to operate monetary policy in the future.

5.  Foreign policy decisions too often reflect an emotional ad hoc response to today’s headlines, not carefully considered mutual defense institutions with rules such as NATO.

When I make these arguments, I often get the following pushback: “All is lost in any case. The system is hopeless corrupt. So why not do the same?”

That’s basically the attitude of all the con artists of 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’s a great deal of ruin in a nation. You may think the US is hopelessly corrupt, but try spending some time in the Congo, Afghanistan or North Korea. I assure you that things can sink far lower, and will sink lower unless we try to uphold standards.

But it’s not easy.  Jimmy’s brother Chuck is portrayed as the grown-up in the room.  He is a stickler for rules, a strict rules utilitarian, and is portrayed as an annoying kill-joy (and other terms I cannot use here—we do have rules!)  Jimmy is the fun guy—he’s why we watch.   So I warn you not to expect any thanks if you fight this battle for ethical standards.  Even your ideological soul mates will consider you a traitor when you refuse to cut corners to help your side win political battles.

PS.  This NYT article makes some related points:

The Thielites want to see the government hollowed out — to eject the administrative state and erase its memory — not to enhance liberty, but to make our nation’s current operating system more suitable for coercion. They wish to unseat the liberal technocratic elite only so they can install their own: a more competent, compliant and unfettered one.

What this vision is not, is a conservatism of limits. Rather, it is Promethean, progressive, in the most basic sense: It deplores any constraint on its power to govern, shape the future, despoil the planet, innovate, and expand the American economy. All limits — pluralism, democracy, ecology, human frailty — must be overcome in pursuit of winning the world game, reasserting American dominance and dispelling our decadent malaise.