There's not so much a rule of thumb as there is a developing awareness that not all Internet users have the dexterity and agility of a professional, fulltime interface designer. Back in 1999/2000 you saw a lot of "pixel" designs where things were tiny and used buttons 8x8 big. Since the usability boom inspired by Steve Krug, Kathy Sierra, 37signals, Jakob Nielsen and others throughout the 2000s people have become more aware of how usable their apps and sites are and have started designing accordingly.
Another side to the story is that screens and screen resolutions in general are getting bigger. Today's average is probably 1280x1024 and up, whereas ten years ago you'd be lucky to find a 1280x1024 visitor on your site as most people were still averaging around 800x600. Because resolutions are bigger, more pixels fit on the screen and what was previously pretty easy to see is now getting even tinier (and as such, harder to click).
And finally, the introduction of touch-based devices has caused a lot of developers to start taking click area seriously, since it's hard to hit a small target with something as imprecise as a finger when compared to the extreme precision of the mouse pointer.
All of these changes will probably lead to rules of thumb at some point, but overall the best thing you can do is to identify what kind of audience is visiting your site and design accordingly, taking into account who they are, what devices they're using, and other elements such as how much space you have on your screen/window.