< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: Rule-Sets and Old Words

Monday, August 21, 2006

Rule-Sets and Old Words

Despite a rather inappropriate reputation from some quarters, I actually admire Tom Barnett's work... just as I admire Robb's and Lind's work, and the posts of Zenpundit, Wiggins, Purpleslog, Curtis Gale Weeks, and others. Very interesting stuff these folks post about.

But there is something I don't understand about these very talented thinkers. They constantly use the term "rule-sets". Barnett's glossary on his site even contains a definition: a collection of rules that delineates how some activity normally unfolds.

This is borrowed from the programming term, I assume. But I simply don't understand how these writers use the term.

They apply the term "rule-sets" to all manner of political, social, moral, and even economic decision making processes. I can't help but wonder, why use a new word when we've used the same word for such things quite well for quite some time now?

Custom. Course of trade. Convention. Law.

Are these not suitably defined words? Don't they do a better of job of precisely identifying which "rule-set" one is talking about than merely saying "rule-set"?

It seems to me that the generic "rule-set" is actually quite ambiguous. And the latent ambiguity in the term leads to much mischief. For example, Tom Barnett talks about governments switching rule-sets from peacetime to wartime. As if somehow a certain light goes off, or on, when a government decides it is "at war". This is a very convenient way of understanding a very complex mechanism. One might easily object to such a simplistic view on the basis that "government" doesn't go to war at all, but that "people" do. As such, figuring out the rule-sets which "government" uses is only going to lead one down a very dark and ultimately unenlightening path. What matters are minds.

In other words "rule-sets" are a very general sort of thing. So general in fact I question whether or not the study of them can be properly scientific, or is it merely mythological?

To be sure, certain laws are passed and certain contingencies go into effect whenever the people of a nation consider themselves to be at war. But other laws stay the same. Other lights stay on. And besides, what the "government" decides to do pales in comparison to what individuals decide to do.

That is, there are customary ways which different countries follow on their way to war. People do certain things be they: symbolic, superstitious, economic, physiological, or even spiritual in order to signify to themselves and others that they are "at war". These are customs. The customs of fighting. They are not a part of the government's "rule-set" for "wartime." Instead, they exist apriori legalistic declarations.

Another example, course of trade, is illustrative. When "wartime" occurs certain trading becomes "taboo". Other trading becomes enormously profitable. And the customs which tacitly govern merchants, exporters and importers, shippers and customers, all reform themselves into an unwritten code of wartime trade. The habits of these business people are again circumscribed apriori wartime codes.

Getting these confused, in my mind, does much more harm than good. The "doctrine of preemption" and the "Patriot Act" may be "rule-sets" but that isn't saying much about them. One is executive made law (fiat), the other duly enacted legislation (positive), both are laws. But one is exceptionally more powerful than the other and missing that is missing a lot.