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It's safe to say that society as we know it couldn't exist without rules. Without rules, power would be the only source of order in the world, either in terms of destructive capability or material resources.

And like any tool that can be used for the common good, rules have the potential to be abused.

Rules have power, and their ability to level the playing field can also be used to unbalance it in favor of whomever makes the rules in the first place. So what can you do? You can always break the law, but the more clever will figure out how to beat them at their own game.

There are two ways this can happen:

  1. The rules can hang you, but the rules can also save you. Obstructive Bureaucrats and the like may think of the rules as a hammer to crush unworthy peons with, but the people who wrote the rules may have had other ideas: an apparently mean-spirited and arbitrary rule might have a reasonable exception buried in its text that the tyrants in charge prefer to conveniently ignore. Alternately, the roles may be reversed, and a villain who apparently has been caught dead to rights by the authorities finds a convenient loophole to wriggle through.
  2. The people who enforce the rules don't necessarily follow them. They may imagine themselves to be a higher class or more noble or pious or whatever, but in the end it's all because of the badge they wear or the title they hold: they're just as fallible as anyone else, and if these people insist that there's not a single rule they've ever broken, they can be sent screaming into a Villainous BSOD if someone finds that one obscure rule they did break, or points out a rule that they would never want to follow. (The more sociopathic might instead be compelled to dispose of whoever pointed out this fact, all to maintain their perfect record. Never mind that there are rules against murder in every culture on the face of the globe.) Again, this can have a dark side, as a paragon figure can be transformed into a Broken Pedestal if someone brings to light some transgression in his or her past.

An easy way to subvert Can't Get Away with Nuthin'. See also Screw the Rules, I Have Money. Compare Screw The Rules I'm Doing What's Right and Chaotic Good, where Lawful and Good are on opposite sides, and Loophole Abuse. Any Rules Lawyer often uses the first variant, and is afraid of somebody using the second on him.

Examples of 1:


Comic Books

  • In one of the Donald Duck comics, the Beagle Boys use many strange laws and legal loopholes to get away with really stupid crimes (like stealing one certain kind of sandwich), just to piss off police and the judge. However, it backfires because the judge later finds other loopholes that make them guilty anyway (stealing that one kind of sandwich is not a crime... as long as you eat it after dusk).
  • A large part of Knights of the Dinner Table is an ongoing Rule Fu duel between Game Master B. A. Felton and Rules Lawyer Brian Van Hoose. Brian usually gets the better of B.A., but when the campaign is on the line, B.A. pulls out a win.


Film

  • In The Incredibles, Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible) works for an insurance company whose boss orders them to screw over the customers however possible; Bob gets around this by using Could Say It, But... to give the policy holders the information they need.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: In At World's End, Barbossa opposes Jack's motion to the Brethren Court (to fight the EITC's armada) by quoting the code, calling his motion "an act of war", something which can only be declared by the Pirate King, an elected official. But since each Lord of the current Court only votes for himself, it's unlikely there will ever be a Pirate King again. Barbossa even calls on Teague to make sure this rule is enforced. Jack then calls for a vote, and when everyone else votes for themselves, Jack votes for the one Lord who supports his motion: Elisabeth. Jack gets his way and, since he followed the rules, no one can even complain. Kapow!


Literature

  • Subverted in Monstrous Regiment: Jackrum pretends to pull this by citing a non-existent rule; Blouse later catches Jackrum out when checking the rulebook. Then does nothing about it, and indeed compliments Jackrum on the exactitude of his citation.
    • This could be because he a) recognises on some level that Jackrum is very useful, b) also realises on some level that Jackrum could kill him in 2 seconds flat. It wouldn't be the first officer he's killed either.
    • The situation proves that both Jackrum and Blouse are good and useful in their own ways. Jackrum because he defies the rules, and Blouse because he knows them.
  • In Isaac Asimov's story "Blind Alley", a bureaucrat sets up a chain of events that allows a Dying Race of aliens to steal a spaceship and escape human space; the bureaucrat makes sure that there is an extensive (and legitimate) paper trail proving that he had nothing to do with it.
  • In David Brin's Uplift universe, the rules laid down by billions of years of galactic bureaucracy are extremely important. Even the most ruthless races are terrified of violating the "Standards for Acceptable Warfare."
  • Used in Dexta when Gloria (professional bureaucrat that she is) pulls out every rule in the book to trip up the corrupt Imperial Governor. This gets her promoted to Acting Imperial Governor with deliberately impossible orders ("enforce a cease-fire between two alien factions without using Imperial troops to defend aliens"), so she takes advantage of a militia that the Emperor didn't know about to solve the problem.
  • Jesus verses Pharisees in The Bible, calling them out for violating other rules when they over-analyze laws (not helping people in need on the Sabbath going against why it exists in the first place). He also does it with Satan in the desert (If you walk off a cliff God will send angels to save you vs. You shouldn't tempt/test God).
  • Happens frequently in The Icelandic Sagas. Lacking a widespread writing system, law was taught orally; good knowledge of law earned a person great respect, although only a handful ever learned all the intricacies of the system. Courtroom scenes are common in the sagas, with knowledgeable people often playing key roles in the outcomes, to the detriment and benefit of both antagonists and protagonists.


Live Action TV

  • The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Ensigns of Command" revolved around a human colony on a world claimed by the Sheliak Corporate. The Sheliak demanded the removal of the human colonists before their own colonists arrived in four days; unfortunately, the colony has grown to the point that it would take three weeks to evacuate everyone. Picard tries to negotiate with the Sheliak only to be rebuffed as they cite various terms of the ridiculously complicated Treaty of Armens which rule in their favor. Finally, Picard looks through the Treaty himself and discovers a clause he can use against the Sheliak: he invokes the right to have a neutral third party arbitrate, and chooses the Grizzelas, who won't come out of hibernation for another six months. This time, it's the Sheliak's turn to balk (and finally, acquiesce).
  • Just about every villain on Leverage can't be caught by the authorities because they haven't technically broken the law - that's where Nate and his team come in.
  • The Babylon 5 episode "By Any Means Necessary" centers on a dockers' strike on the eponymous station. The government's negotiator invokes the Rush Act, which authorizes Commander Sinclair to use "any means necessary" to end the strike. Sinclair decides to do so by moving funds from the station's military budget to meet the dockers' demands instead of using military force.
  • The fifth season of News Radio features a three-episode arc where Affably Evil Johnny Johnson successfully takes over Jimmy James' corporate empire. As a consolation prize, Johnny lets Jimmy take one WNYX employee with him as he tries to rebuild his empire. At the end of the day, Jimmy chooses... Johnny, who had named himself Dave's replacement as WNYX news director earlier in the day. Johnny immediately recognizes the brilliance of Jimmy's move and concedes defeat.

 Dave: But you're evil!

Johnny: That's no excuse for poor sportsmanship.

  • In one episode of The West Wing, the President inadvertently accepts a gift that becomes politically troublesome. When he tries to return it, the local Obstructive Bureaucrat won't allow him, because it now belongs to the American people. Charlie tries several tacks to get it back, but the bureaucrat always finds a rule to block him. Finally, Charlie digs up a lawyer who's committed the entire US code to memory, and finds a clause specifying that the President can't accept a gift that would embarrass the United States.
  • In Breaking Bad, the owner of a salvage yard is particularly impressive in preventing Hank from searching an RV.

 Hank: I don't need a warrant, I have probable cause.

Junkman: My understanding is that probable cause relates to something like a vehicle search.

Hank: See those four round, rubber things? Those are wheels. This is a vehicle.

Junkman: Did you actually see it drive onto the lot? I didn't think so. This is a domicile.

  • Doctor Who: In "Paradise Towers", the Doctor escapes the rules-obsessed Caretakers by citing various 'rules' that he has just made-up. None of the Caretakers are willing to admit that they are so unfamiliar with the rulebook that they don't recognise these 'rules'.


Tabletop Games

  • Knights of the Dinner Table the gaming community of Muncie is made of this trope, but especially Brian Vanhoose who never met a rule he couldn't exploit. For example, a frustrated B.A. invoked obscure "overbearing" rules in his game (a target is automatically overbeared by an angry mob, consisting of at least ten people) over Brian's objections and delivered a Humiliation Conga to his group. Brian responded by having each party member hire 10 beggars to act as a mob and started mercilessly overbearing monsters.


Web Comics

  • Done once by Tristan from Angel Moxie, when accused for wearing socks in breach of school's statutes on dress. She retorted that they were stockings and quoted a point that saying that if the student didn't want to wear the prescribed socks, she has to wear stockings; to the shock of the teacher, the statute didn't say anything about what those stockings should look like.
  • In Skin Horse, when trying to save a client from a BlackOps base.


Web Original

  • Whateley Universe has Jadis' lawyer pull an epic one, made even more epic by going on for a good fifteen minutes, most of which is brushed over, but described as an epic battle, allowing the user to imagine it. Jadis got off.


Real Life

  • Urban legend: A modern student at Oxford or Cambridge points to a four-hundred year-old rule stating that the university must provide "cakes and ale" to him as he takes his exam. The university complies (with the modern equivalent, a burger and a Pepsi), and then promptly fines him for not wearing his sword to the examination.
  • This is how law in general works. There will generally be a good reason for a rule which nonetheless ends up being exploited for an unpredicted purpose by a Rules Lawyer in court or applied incorrectly/not as expected/exactly as written and no further.
  • This is why they had to get Al Capone on tax evasion; everything worse that he'd done, he'd managed to squeazle his way out of. The taxes were the only thing the authorities could actually make stick.
    • This also why tax forms in the US have a box to report any illegal income. If you've profited through any crime and don't report it, the government only has to prove that you have unaccounted-for income, so they can book you on tax evasion (and possibly filling out a falsified form) if nothing else. The presence of this box prevents any criminal from claiming that their illegal profits were unreported because they didn't fit any of the categories present.

Examples of 2:

Comic Books

  • One Dark Horse comic involved a Steampunk robot that killed people according to Bible quotations. To stop it, the protagonist countered every quote with one that was the complete opposite: "The lord is invincible"/"Chariots of iron";


Literature


Western Animation

  • Done once in Pig City: the Sadist Teacher becomes the new Director; only to lose his job when students prove he doesn't know Latin, which is required to perform this function.
  • An episode of Doug has Doug's entire class put into detention by Vice-Principal Bone. This prompts a Quailman fantasy sequence where Doug's superheroic alter ego faces down the Rulesmeister, master of arbitrary rules, and eventually defeats him by pointing out he's wearing mismatched socks, one of the many things he has a rule against. This carries over back into reality, when Mr. Bone snatches a comic book...and Doug points out that one of the rules is "No Grabbing Other Peoples' Comics!"
  • In the Futurama episode "How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back", Hermes defeats Obstructive Bureaucrat Morgan Proctor by uncovering an old "notification of romantic entanglement" form she had filed. The file wasn't used as proof of sexual impropriety, however: it was the fact that she had stamped it four times instead of the requisite five that got her demoted. However Hermes also got demoted for organizing the Central Bureaucracy too fast. Morgan's offence was considered bigger than Hermes's. She, who was a Grade 19 bureaucrat before this defeat, was forced to turn her bureaucrat badge while Hermes was just demoted from Grade 36 to Grade 38. He was even promoted to Grade 37 for turning Morgan.


Real Life

  • Discussions on the merits of religion in general and Christianity in particular - which, as we all know, are always civil and polite - often involve a fair amount of biblical Rule Fu. Expect Bible quotes containing bizarre and/or Values Dissonance-heavy rules to be tossed around liberally. More rarely, devout Christians arguing with other devout Christians may also play Rule Fu with the Bible.
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