Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rules Lawyering and Constitutional Munchkins

Megan McArdle on the PPACA: “I think it's pretty obvious that it doesn't fit within the text of the constitution as written, but that's only one of the possible meanings of "unconstitutional" in modern political discourse.”

That’s a problem. Some background on the title: I play wargames and role-playing games. Rules Lawyer is an epithet there (as I understand it is in other sports and competitions). It’s a name for someone who squeezes their interpretation into grey areas of the rules and twists them to their individual advantage. To be fair to actual lawyers, this is what they arguably have a duty to their clients to do, and their clients’ opponents have lawyers to do the same. But I digress. In a game not played in the courtroom, rules lawyers is a negative way to play the game, but you can still be inside the Rules As Written and be a Rules Lawyer – so you’re playing the same game as everyone else, just in a less-than-positive fashion.

There’s a step beyond rules lawyers, though, and that’s the Munchkin

Munchkins are infamous for various degrees of cheating, willfully misinterpreting rules that work against them while boisterously proclaiming ones that work in their favor. As a matter of course they selectively obey the letter of rules while perverting the spirit blatantly. The worst munchkins will cheat shamelessly, ignoring inconvenient numerical modifiers and fouling dice throws till they get the result they want. During character creation, munchkins engage in ruthless min-maxing, leading to exceptionally unrealistic or unusual characters who make no sense except in terms of raw power.

We’ve gotten to the point at which lawmakers (on both sides) have gone beyond rules-lawyering the Constitution and well into Munchkin Con-Law (MCL). Gonzalez vs. Raich would be an excellent example of bipartisan Munchkin Con-Law, along with most of the laws and jurisprudence that have been chipping away at the 4th amendment. The PPACA is merely an example on partisan MCL, which in some ways makes it more pernicious. The supporters have started with the premise that PPACA must be passed, and have gone looking for only the “rules” that support their desires. When shown the “rules” that prevent it, they blatantly ignore their opponents.

The solution, in a game, to a munchkin, is to not play him. We don’t have that option day-to-day in the US. We have to vote them out. And keep voting them out until the replacements stop playing silly buggers with the Constitution.


  1. *snerk* OK, that is a genuinely awesome way to describe how some people approach Constitutional theory... Granted, yelling at one another as to what the rules are, and the loudest person winning, is actually part of the rules of Munchkin, but that is not the way our founding document was intended to be used, and putting it in that framework makes the situation instantly understandable. Well done!

  2. As you put it, "yelling at one another as to what the rules are, and the loudest person winning," could be a (simplistic) view of the amendment process.

    The rules of the game are not immutable. I will grant the original Prohibitionists this, they amended the Constitution! They did the hard work necessary to "correctly" change the rules.

    Changing the world ought to be hard.


Please keep it civil