The infamous case of whisky made its way up and down the elevator at The Washington Post several times last month before it was finally expelled for good by the exasperated journalist who had been trying as politely as possible to indicate to his would-be yuletide benefactors that he could not accept such boodle. "It's back!" a secretary exclaimed in wonderment at one point, as the invincible thing was seen once again being borne down the hall toward its unwilling recipient. The rest of us, less dramatically, spent almost as much time dithering around with borderline gifts, bribes and edible season's greetings, deciding which must go, which might be given to charity with a note to this effect to the sender, and which it would be absurd to the point of neurotic to return. What about the gift-giver who was a friend . . . a real one . . . but also a subject whose business or department of government the paper writes about, but who at the same time . . . Oh, God . . .

The one constant in all this every year is that most people don't want the stuff, and those who do aren't allowed to keep it anyway, unlike the old days when some of the journalistic elect used to actually brag about getting their stash of fresh caviar from the shah's embassy. Nowadays, on the contrary, we have rules -- rules about gifts, dinner checks and freebies, rules that cover as many contingencies as the fertile and suspicious mind of an ethics cop can envision. These help the hapless journalist who does not want to be impolite; he can mumble something rueful about company policy obliging him to say no -- and be done with it. More important, given the shameless way our business used to behave in these matters, the prohibitions are indisputably a good thing. But as I fussed about with the rest of them last month, deciding which offering met which test, it occurred to me that our seasonal preoccupation was like so much else now going on in American life: the rules had become less a way of achieving an end than a way of not thinking about it.

Rote and reflex were being seen as the whole of ethics. The point is that material gifts are neither the beginning nor end of most journalistic corruption in Washington, and in a way the injunction against them gives some of our most thoroughly compromised, in-the-tank colleagues a free pass ("Well, I sent back the 10-pound tin of figs in sesame syrup . . . I must be clean"). Sycophancy, unbridled personal ambition, professional trimming and copy manipulated in the service of some relationship or aspiration outside the building -- nothing in the rules covering cooked figs can get to these.

I dwell on the minor, annual inconvenience to journalists of the Christmas-gift drama because it seems to me so perfectly to reflect a larger, more widespread phenomenon of the moment: the manner in which an ever more elaborate network of rules, regulations, injunctions, laws, orders and edicts, covering just about every eventuality you ever thought of, has managed so notoriously not to do the job it was meant to. Exhibit A, of course, is our reformed political system, as it provides for both the selection of nominees for office and the raising and expenditure of funds. Its endless intricate provisions require an army of special students and bureaucrats to administer, and for what? For presidential campaigns that are notorious for their extravagant, protracted expense and numbing irrelevance and for a degree of open influence buying and selling on Capitol Hill that is positively brazen.

In defense of these unhappy outcomes, it is often pointed out that at least a lot of it is public now, and that the old, unreformed system was no prize either, and this is true. Certain outrages, at least, are no more, though others have taken their place. Similarly, other kinds of wrong -- from racial discrimination to pollution of the environment -- required remedy; such statutes, with all their curlicues and vexations, did not get enacted for nothing. Nor should anyone deceive himself that the nation has completely reformed any more than the political system has. Human nature and its infinite capacity to imagine a hustle or a dirty advantage remain unchanged. And so, as the periodic explosion of business and other institutional scandal informs us, does the reckless, avaricious appetite of a lot of people in important places.

But at some point I think you have to retire this "bad old days" argument, along with its corollary about the predatory nature of so many public and private institutions in this country, as true but beside the point. You have to address instead the question of why the blanket of new rules we have imposed on them seems not to have achieved the desired effect and whether it is not a mistake to try to remedy this failure by thinking up new twists and turns. Surely by now we have all seen enough examples of the notorious culprit brought to book in this country who can point out with great self-righteousness and, alas, accuracy that nothing he did violated or even bent the statutes and/or rules. It was not legally forbidden, therefore it must have been OK. Under scrupulous accountancy and care, companies and industries buy and sell our national legislators, all within the letter of the revised law. People use these various restrictions as an excuse and a dodge, a substitute for rectitude, in other words: I have met the requirements of the law, get off my case.

The late Edward R. Murrow, after he had left journalism for a stint in government, once said that on the inside he was continually amazed by the things journalists knew that they shouldn't -- and the things they didn't know that they should. Stirring around in the political and social issues of the day, I am continually surprised by the things that should be outlawed that aren't -- and the things that shouldn't be that are. It is conceivable to me that the cure is more rules and laws, but I doubt it. I think we should be addressing what is defective -- impractical, pointless, doomed -- in the ones we have and the extent to which the layering on should stop and a new seriousness be attempted in administering the ones that matter. If the Democrats had in fact been "rethinking" basic policies for the last eight years, as they promised they would, this is surely one of the things they would have rethought about. It may seem a far cry from the turmoil over an unwanted case of Christmas booze, but it is not. We have all these rules. We also still have all these problems -- in some cases more.

Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.

Substituting rote and reflex for thought, we have often missed the point of our laws.