Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

What is liberty, and why does it depend on the general observance of social norms?

Liberty is not the absence of restraint, whence chaos and depredation flow. Liberty is the presence of mutual restraint based on trust, respect, and forbearance. Where those attributes prevail, a people can coexist peacefully and cooperate beneficially. Cooperation includes not only unremunerated assistance but also the exchange of products and services for mutual benefit, directly or with the use of money.

The state, at best, provides an ambience in which liberty can flourish. It does that by defending citizens from foreign and domestic predators. But the actualization of liberty depends on the institutions of civil society: family, church, community, club, charity, and commercial enterprise. It is those institutions that inculcate social norms, and it the common observance of those norms that creates and sustains mutual trust, respect, and forbearance among a people.

By the same token, a lack of shared norms — especially by outright rejection — fuels mistrust, disrespect, and aggression. How do I know when someone isn’t worthy of my trust, respect, and forbearance? When he habitually signals — by deeds, words, or allegiances — the rejection of social norms.

Here is a rough taxonomy of social norms and their relationship to each other and to liberty:

Taxonomy of social norms

I’ll talk about some of the ways in which leftists undermine and signal their opposition to the norms that enable a functional civil society — one that advances mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. But first I want to make a general point about the power of the state to destroy socializing norms and institutions without overtly abolishing them. Leftists like to portray themselves as anti-authoritarian, but they do so cynically. One of the things that they know (or intuit) is that a vast swath of the populace is morally malleable, so if the state says that something is all right (or verboten) huge numbers of persons will follow suit and say that it’s all right (or verboten). As I once wrote, in a post about same-sex “marriage,”

When the state sends signals about private arrangements, private arrangements tend to align themselves with the signals being sent by the state.

Which is why the left relies heavily on non-electoral means of exerting control, that is, litigation and regulation. There is as much authority in those aspects of governance as there is in the decisions of elected representatives. If five justices of the Supreme Court were to say that the death penalty is unconstitutional, as they have said that homosexual “marriage” should be considered marriage, millions of people will acquiesce, without giving more than a moment’s thought to the broader social implications of either decree.

As the following paragraphs attest, decades-long persistence in such matters has amply rewarded the left’s efforts to transform America fundamentally — for the worse.

Murder. Core norms are widely accepted in America, though inconsistently. Leftists will decry murder and even call for the death penalty when the perpetrator is a white heterosexual and the victims are not. But leftists won’t admit that abortion is murder, that is, the taking of a human life. Moreover, leftists (and not a few misguided conservatives and libertarians) have for more than a century signaled their toleration of murder by opposing capital punishment. A pro-life leftist is someone who believes in sparing criminals and enemy combatants, while killing children in the womb.

Theft. Leftists will say that the prohibition of theft is a core social norm, and that it ought to be observed and enforced by the state. In the next breath, they will defend all manner of state-enforced theft, from Social Security transfer payments to housing subsidies, and then propose more of them (e.g., Universal Basic Income). If you believe that taxation isn’t theft (or worse), consider this. And if you believe that income redistribution at the point of a gun is charity, consider this.

Marriage and divorce. Leftists obviously have no qualms about the destruction of a crucial reinforcing norm: marriage. I have written a detailed defense of traditional marriage as a civilizing and libertarian institution, and a detailed condemnation of same-sex “marriage” as an anti-libertarian innovation. Rather than repeat the arguments of that post, I refer you to it. The bottom line is that the left, in its usual zeal to advance the cause of imaginary victims, has set in motion the destruction of a bulwark of civil society.

The heavy hand of leftism is visible in the adoption of no-fault divorce laws, which work against marital perseverance, which helps to ensure children to be raised by both parents. As Wikipedia puts it, the “Women’s movement effected change in Western society, including … ‘no fault’ divorce.” And where did no-fault divorce first become available? In California, of course.

Sexuality. The LGBTQ movement is a left-wing inspiration, designed mainly to infuriate conservatives and incidentally advance the cause of people whom leftists see as victims. (If the aim of persons who “identify” as LGBT or Q is to be left alone, loud shrillness isn’t the way to go about it.) Left-wing support of such groups — which are really identity groups, not victim groups — serves two purposes. The first is virtue-signaling; the second is goading conservatives into acts that can be portrayed as victim-bashing (e.g., various “bathroom bills”).  More deeply, left-wing support of the LGBTQ movement signals a rejection of civilizing norms, and is meant to erode them further. At the margin, there are many impressionable young persons who will turn their backs on marriage and family and adopt the frivolous, decadent, and too-often-fatal LGBTQ “lifestyle.”

Race. Before the contrived prominence of the LGBTQ “cause,” the left’s favorite victim group was blacks. Early and proper attention to barbarous and unjust practices (e.g., lynchings and denial of voting rights) gave way to the persistent myth that racial inequality is an artifact of slavery and legal segregation. The myth persists because of an obdurate refusal to recognize racial differences in intelligence. In “Race Gaps in SAT Scores Highlight Racial Inequality and Hinder Upward Mobility,” for example,  the authors (researchers at the Brookings Institution, which the media usually describe as center-left) document persistent race differences in IQ, admit that “it is unlikely that the racial achievement gap can be explained away by class differences across race,” but end with “race gaps on the SAT hold up a mirror to racial inequities in society as a whole,” as if those inequalities could be eradicated despite the demonstrably ineradicable intelligence gap. Well, they could be reduced — and are reduced, to some extent — but mainly by stealing money, jobs, and university admissions from whites and East Asians.

And so, billions upon billions of dollars have been wasted on early education, job training, public housing, and welfare payments (the conditions of which have destroyed black families and worsened the unemployment rate among blacks). Racial quotas (called “affirmative action” and “diversity programs”) have penalized better-qualified whites and Asians seeking jobs, promotions, and university admissions — and have also penalized blacks by setting them up for failure (see this, this, and this).

Forced “diversity” is in fact socially divisive, as Maverick Philosopher correctly observes. Then there were the divisive eight years of Obama’s presidency, in which he and his so-called Department of Justice defended black thugs and persecuted white cops. Is it any wonder that blacks and whites probably mistrust each other more than they have since the bad old days of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation? Where all of this isn’t directly destructive of social comity, it signals rejection of core and reinforcing norms that make social comity possible.

Drugs. The legalization of marijuana isn’t just an issue for leftists, but they certainly champion legalization as yet another blow for “personal freedom.” The usual response to evidence that marijuana has many undesirable long-term effects is something like “so does alcohol, so why isn’t it illegal?” Well, it’s far too late to prohibit alcohol in the United States (tried and failed), and it’s probably far too late (and futile) to prohibit marijuana.

I’m not a prohibitionist (of alcohol or marijuana), but marijuana should be used knowing the risks associated with its use, just as the risks of alcohol consumption are well known. Instead, the push for “personal freedom” simply dodges the issue of risk by allowing marijuana consumption for medical conditions that apply to only a small fraction of its users.

Leftists will eventually turn on marijuana because it’s used and enjoyed by the unwashed masses (like cigarettes), so they will then campaign to regulate it and curtail its use. Marijuana use, in other words, is just a weapon in the culture war-cum-civil war — another route by which the left attacks and weakens traditional norms and those who stand behind them.

Religion. There’s nothing left to be said about the effort to eradicate religion. The late Justice Scalia called it “freedom from religion” as opposed to “freedom of religion,” which the Constitution guarantees. The ACLU and similar organizations attack expressions of religion at every turn. Those attacks may have the unsought effect of redoubling the devotion of many Americans to liberty-advancing religious principles. But surely, at the margin, the attacks will diminish religious affiliation and the social good that goes with it: true kindness and charity, true tolerance, true forgiveness. (For a discussion of the beneficial effects of religion go here and scroll to “Religion and Liberty.”)

To be against religion is an article of faith for most leftists, who fancy themselves rational and fact-based, despite ample evidence to the contrary. They are, in fact, spoiled children of capitalism engaged in adolescent rebellion. And religion is a favored target of the rebellious adolescent — especially religion of the Judeo-Christian variety, because most leftists were reared in that tradition. Islam, on the other hand, is acceptable because its adherents — who stand against almost everything leftists stand for — are “victims” in the twisted topography of leftist dogma.

Self-reliance. What better way to control people than to make them reliant on you instead of themselves? That’s how drug dealers (at the top of the food chain) make big bucks — until they’re shot or arrested. Dependency on big government is tantamount to dependency on the left, which gratifies a deeply felt need for power. (Fascism is a left-wing phenomenon.) Conservatives treat their children like children, so that those children will become responsible adults. Leftists treat adults like children because it makes them (leftists) feel superior. Though when leftists don’t get their way, they act like children, as they have done since the election of Donald Trump.

The left has devised and implemented many forms of control over the past 80 years. Those forms range from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to food stamps, special deals on housing and mortgages, and rampant regulation of all aspects of the economy. What better way to break the old American habit of self-reliance and personal responsibility — a habit that fosters mutually beneficial cooperation — than to establish government as the go-to arbiter of social and economic relations?

I could relate many personal run-ins with the nanny state, but I will close this discussion by pointing to examples of an especially annoying outrage: “Parents In Trouble Again for Letting Kids Walk Alone” (USA Today, April 13, 2015), “Parents Arrested for Letting their Children Play Outside as America Degenerates into Clinical Insanity” (OffTheGridNews, ca. 2012), and “How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Just 4 Generations” (Free-Range Kids, February 1, 2017). Fortunately, as a child I was not cooped up by the state.

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That’s more than enough of that. The left’s crusade against social norms leads to predatory and destructive behavior and suppresses peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. It is the inevitable result of the culture war that the left has waged for decades:

When social norms — long-established rules of behavior — are sundered willy-nilly the result is a breakdown of the voluntary order known as civil society. The liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for the state to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism). That is civil society, which the state ought to protect, but instead usurps and destroys. Usurping is one of the state’s primary (and illegitimate) functions. The state establishes agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Worse, however, is the way in which the state destroys the social norms that foster social harmony — mutual respect and trust — without which a people cannot flourish….

“Thanks” to the signals sent by the state — many of them in the form of legislative, executive, and judicial dictates — we now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability. The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda…. I call them left-statists. They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

The culture war, which escalated sharply in the 1960s, is a classic case of barbarism vs. civilization. Arnold Kling describes it in The Three Languages of Politics:

[Leftists] use the heuristic of the oppressed-oppressor axis. [They] view most favorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressed or standing with the oppressed. They view most unfavorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressors. [Conservatives] use the heuristic of the civilization-barbarism axis. [They] view most favorably the institutions that they believe constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior, and they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions.

Kling often strains to be even-handed, not only in Three Languages of Politics but in general. (Sample his blog.) Here, I think he is being unduly kind by crediting the left with a concern for the oppressed. That is a superficial interpretation of the left’s championing of “victims,” but the deeper explanation — of which I’ve given many examples — is an attitude of rebellion for rebellion’s sake, coupled with a desire for control. And damn the social and economic consequences, which seem not to occur to (or bother) leftists hell-bent having their way by harnessing the power of the state.

I must therefore revise Kling’s statement of the conservative heuristic, to read as follows: Conservatives view most favorably the voluntary institutions that constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior. And they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions, even if they are doing it unwittingly and for the ostensible objective of helping the “oppressed.”

But leftists will object that the institutions of civil society are often oppressive, or were when they held sway. That objection usually rests on the nirvana fallacy; the institutions do not or did not live up to the left’s idea of perfection. The left’s answer to the “failure” of civil institutions is the enactment of laws, writing of regulations, and promulgation of a judicial decrees. But how often do “reality based” leftists check back to see whether the various government interventions have produced their wanted effects without producing deleterious side effects? I venture to say that the answer is almost never. If leftists were interested in the actual betterment of their fellow Americans, as opposed to controlling them, they would long ago have curbed government spending and regulatory activity, which have stunted economic growth to the detriment of poor and rich alike.

The urge to control is evident in the nascent secessionist movement in California, which has my best wishes for success. Leftists reject constitutional limits on the central government as long as they’re in charge. But confront leftists with a central government that is at least nominally controlled by Republicans (many of whom are actually conservatives) and they want out. (By contrast, my support of secession is meant to restore constitutional limits on the central government by starting over.)

The urge to secede is legitimate, if hypocritical on the part of leftists. Exit, or the threat of it, is an essential element of the evolution of civil society — or would be if it weren’t under the thumb of the state. If you don’t like the policies of an institution to which you belong, you can voice your objections and exit if your objections aren’t met. The smaller the institution, the more likely is voice to be effective. And the smaller the institution, the more likely that there are ready alternatives to it.

Voice and the threat of exit are part of what make voluntary institutions effective. They can and do change gradually through trial-and-error. Even large ones, like the Roman Catholic Church, which has changed over the centuries in ways large and small. And when it changed too much in a “liberal” direction, alternatives arose in the form of various Traditional Catholic organizations.

Leftists evidently lack the disposition toward trial-and-error and compromise that makes for “living” social institutions. They will point to a few extreme examples (e.g., slavery and forced segregation) to make the case for precipitous and overbearing government action. The irony is that slavery and forced segregation were government-backed institutions. Other favorite examples (e.g., child labor and “sweat shops”) usually overlook the voluntary nature of the relationships in question — voluntary because the supposed victims were made better off than they had been before. A modern equivalent is found in the case of Wal-Mart, which doesn’t compensate its employees as well as some other, similar firms (e.g., Costco), but which doesn’t drag people off the street and enslave them. Wal-Mart’s workforce of volunteers is, by definition, better off than it would be in the absence of Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart’s millions of customers are, too.

The drive to force Wal-Mart to pay higher wages will, in the end, have the same result as the drive to dictate a minimum wage. It will lead to unemployment for people who most need employment, and it will end in the adoption of automated systems to replace human labor.

Similarly, the drive to make America “fairer” by privileging various groups favored by the left will be thwarted by the realities of economics and human nature. Employers who strive to make a profit (unlike government and universities), will do as they have always done: pay lip-service to “equality” while finding ways to hire only the best-qualified employees. And too many of those persons who are temporarily lifted up by affirmative action and “diversity programs” will find themselves on the outside looking in when they don’t measure up to the expectations of demanding professors and profit-seeking employers.

It comes down to this: Leftists start with an idealized view of the world as it should be — socially and commercially. As a result, they see harm where there is actually gain. And in their zeal to make the world right — by their lights — they make it worse.

Dr. John J. Ray, as usual, is most perceptive about the left:

As a good academic, I first define my terms: A Leftist is a person who is so dissatisfied with the way things naturally are that he/she is prepared to use force to make people behave in ways that they otherwise would not….

The essential feature of all Leftism is the desire to stop other people from doing various things they want to do and make them do various things that they do not want to do (via taxation, regulation, mass murder etc.)  When (on October 30, 2008) Obama spoke of his intention to “fundamentally transform” America, he was not talking about America’s geography or topography.  He was talking about transforming what American people can and must do.  So that is the first and perhaps the most important thing about Leftism:  It is intrinsically authoritarian.

Leftists are not alone in desiring to regulate others, however, so to complete the definition, we have to look at other things that characterize them.

The first remaining thing to say about them is that Leftism is emotional.  The second is to say that the emotion is negative and the third thing to say is that the negative emotion (usually anger/hate/rage) is directed at the world about the Leftist, at the status quo if you like.  The Leftist is nothing if he is not a critic, though usually a very poorly-informed critic.  And the criticisms tend to be both pervasive and deeply felt.

Orwell of course understood Leftism exceptionally well so it is revealing that in 1943 he wrote an essay called “Can Socialists Be Happy?”  His answer was that they can’t even imagine it….

While defining Leftism in terms of their apparent drives and motivations is undoubterdly true and useful, it doesn’t provide a really sharp differentiation of the Left from others.  And I think we can improve on it.  And to do that I think we have to refer to the natural state of affairs.  “The natural state of affairs”?  What is that?  It is a concept sometimes used in both law and economics but I want to broaden its applicability.  I think it is actually quite easy to define in a generally applicable way.  It means whatever people would do in the absence of external constraints….

So I think we can now make a pretty sharp distinction between the changes Leftists want and the changes that conservatives want. Leftists want change AWAY from the natural state of affairs while conservatives want changes TOWARDS the natural state of affairs — or at least changes that respect the natural state of affairs.

For “natural state of affairs” read “social norms that underlie liberty.”

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Related:Social Norms and Liberty” and the many posted listed there

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