Willing adherence to the agreements a community has about how we're going to behave and live together--that's always better than getting people to follow the rules through the threat of fines levied against those who violate them.
"Rules are rules" does have a beautiful nugget inside. It may express a need for clarity, for ease, and even for fairness. As in, "we fined Mr. Smith for storing his bike on the veranda; we're going to fine you too. No matter what you think of them, they're the rules. You have to follow them.
The truth though is that you don't have to follow the rules.
Respectful and considerate behavior is always a choice you make.
Rules are useful because they provide clear guidelines about what the community would like. But they can be changed just like that, any time, in a condo association. A simple majority of board members can pass a new rule or a rule amendment without consulting the owners.
Maybe at bottom, rules are rules is a plea for respect for the community's agreements from a board member or a property manager whose experience seems to teach them that people are basically selfish and must be forced to behave in ways that respect others.
Our job, in condo associations as well as in families and the workplace and elsewhere, is to help the leaders shift their paradigm to a more humane, less violent, non-coercive strategy for obtaining the respectful behavior we all want.