I have been watching the Netflix TV series “Better Call Saul,” which can be seen as a defense of normative utilitarianism.

The protagonist is a criminal named Jimmy who has all sorts of schemes to evade regulations and/or steal property to benefit himself and his friends. The trick in the show is that the producers portray Jimmy as a kind of lovable rogue, who feels guilty when his actions cause pain to others. He bends society’s rules, but only when he thinks the benefits will outweigh the costs. (At least in the early season.)

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s actions almost always seem to backfire. They lead to all sorts of reactions that make Jimmy feel guilty. But he soon got over it and then started his next adventure. His girlfriend thinks he needs a psychiatrist, but actually he needs a philosopher.

Jimmy’s problem is that he has adopted a crude form of utilitarianism, trying 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 bench from 9 to 15 members. They fail to realize that any transitory benefits from having additional judges rule as they please will outweigh the deterioration 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 realize that even if this were true, the costs of turning the United States into a banana republic would far outweigh any short-term benefits.

3. Some Democrats spent money on the campaigns of GOP primary candidates who claimed the 2020 election was stolen, assuming these candidates would be easier to defeat in the fall. They fail to understand that sustainable political success comes only by getting the opposition to accept some of your views. (FDR, Reagan, and Thatcher are good examples.)

4. Some economists believe that this would be a good time to raise the inflation target to 3%, forgetting that the added benefit of slightly higher inflation at this time would outweigh the cost of the loss of policy credibility. Managing monetary policy in the future is difficult.

5. Foreign policy decisions often reflect an emotion this In response to today’s headlines, mutual defense institutions with rules like NATO are not carefully considered.

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

This is basically the attitude of all con artists around the world. Others are corrupt, so why should I play by the rules? Others cheat on their taxes, so why should I pay mine?

Adam Smith said that there is much destruction in a nation. You may think the United States is hopelessly corrupt, but try spending some time in the Congo, Afghanistan, or North Korea. I assure you that things can sink much lower, and will sink lower if we do not try to maintain standards.

But it is not easy. Jimmy’s brother Chuck is depicted as an adult in the room. He’s a stickler for rules, a strict rule stickler, and is portrayed as an annoying kill-joy (and other terms I can’t use here—we have rules!) Jimmy is the funny guy—that’s why we watch. So I warn you that if you fight this battle for moral standards, don’t expect any thanks. Even your idealistic soul mates will consider you a traitor when you refuse to cut corners to help your side win a political battle.

Rest assured. this NYT article Makes some related points:

Theelites want to hollow out government — to dislodge the administrative state and erase its memory — not to increase liberty, but to make our country’s current operating system more amenable to coercion. They only want to remove liberal technocratic elites so they can install their own: more efficient, loyal and unfettered.

What this view is not, is a conservatism limit. Rather, it is Promethean, progressive, in the most basic sense: it condemns any limitation on the ability to govern, shape the future, destroy the planet, innovate, and expand the American economy. All limits—pluralism, democracy, ecology, human frailty—must be overcome to win the world game, restore American hegemony, and overcome our decadent malaise.

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