IT MAY SEEM ODD that at the beginning of the 21st century our lives are so pervasively dominated by rules, big rules and small rules, rules that frame our interactions and rules that enter into the fine fabric of our personal lives. After all, at least since the Enlightenment, the epochal trend has been to carve out more space for the individual's freedom--freedom from the church, from God, from the state, from conventional morality, from nosy neighbors. Freedom to craft ourselves into whatever shape we deem fitting. In short, freedom from everybody and for anything. But freedom of this sort comes with a price. And the price is, paradoxically, entanglement in a thick web of rules and regulations.
In a recent essay titled "In Lieu of Manners," Jeffrey Rosen notes that following the dismantling of traditional hierarchies, "the vocabulary of law and legalisms is the only shared language we have left for regulating behavior in an era in which there is no longer a social consensus about how men and women, and even boys and girls, should behave." He describes the phenomenon as "an explosion of legalisms." This explosion of legalisms is different from and much more pervasive than the commonly bemoaned "explosion of litigation." Most of us, Rosen notes, will never be parties in an actual court ease. But all of us are experiencing the increasing regulation of our lives by "rules and laws" instead of "manners and mores."
What is so bad, comparatively speaking, about "rules and laws"? "Manners and mores" can be just as oppressive and can carry a false aura of inevitability, while rules and laws are just what they are--changing codes by which people regulate their common life. We might decide that our "rules" serve us better than "manners." And we might prefer either of them to "God's laws."
For with God's laws, life is regulated by something unbending and unchangeable, with an authority derived from the sacred and absolute. Though we might not like most human "rules and laws," we might like the idea of a divine lawgiver and laws even less. Without God we are freer, because we live by our rules and our laws, not by laws imposed on us from above. Such reasoning is pleasing to the ears of freedom-loving inhabitants of modernity. But is it persuasive?
Consider what happens if we don't like a particular rule. We can go to court and challenge it. But what if we don't like the decision of the court? We go to the Supreme Court. But there is no guarantee that we will like the Supreme Court ruling either. Rightly or wrongly, the recent Bush v. Gore ruling struck many liberals and moderates as ideological and partisan. Cynicism in relation to the rulings of the Supreme Court lands us in dire straits if all we have are "rules and laws. …