Leftists like to taunt conservatives by saying that it is “conservative” to accept the status quo. But leftists know that the much of the status quo was attained by applying the power of the state to override a status quo that resulted from voluntary interactions among people. To question the new status quo becomes an occasion for official abuse (e.g., Mike Pompeo), or for levying civil and criminal penalties against the questioner (e.g., Jack Phillips).
Michael J. Totten has issued a useful reminder about the facts of life under leftitst totalitarianism:
As Christopher Hitchens once said of North Korea, communist states are places where everything that isn’t absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden. Mounting any kind of resistance against them is nearly impossible unless and until the state loses its will to continue.
How did we get here? In addition to the raw exercise of political power, the left has deployed a clever gambit, which some libertarians have adopted in all seriousness because of their inability to see that social norms underlie liberty. (More about that below.) The gambit is to argue for the normalization of behavior that would otherwise be socially discouraged or illegal (e.g., homosexuality, pot-smoking, and worse) because it “just comes naturally”. Why, leftists and libertarians ask, should “natural acts” be discouraged or penalized?
The “natural act” defense is shallow and diversionary. Anything that a person can do is a “natural act” — literally. Such acts include not only murder — which leftists are loath to punish properly — but also various forms of “sexual misconduct”. This is a new, amorphous category of crime which encompasses almost any kind of behavior frowned on by strident feminists and the eunuchs who worship at their feet. It is a “crime” which leftists are quick to punish without benefit of due process.
In that regard, given the nature of the male human being, what is more natural than an attempt to flirt with an attractive female? But in today’s version of leftism, a rather innocent thing like a wolf-whistle or even holding a door open for a woman has become an act of aggression. But a physically dangerous and potentially deadly act such as anal intercourse is a “natural” act of love. (Do leftists ever check their ideas for logical consistency?)
Such contradictions just go to show that the real issue isn’t the “naturalness” of an act, but whether it should be allowed, and who decides whether it should be allowed.
It is taken for granted, even by leftists, that murder, theft, fraud, and various kinds of assault are unallowable, if not punishable in ways that serve the causes of justice and deterrence. Those leftists who are rationalists (as most of them are) will say that punishment is necessary because the world (or the United States, at least) would be a terrible place in which to live if anyone could murder, steal from, or assault anyone else with impunity.
But that is a superficial explanation for the evolution and application of social norms. They are about bonding, the essential ingredient of liberty (discussed below). Punishment isn’t just a response to wrong-doing; it’s an essential means of preserving the bonds that underlie liberty.
Leftists — who like to argue for government programs in aid of this and that group or cause by saying (inter alia) that “we’re all in this together” — think and act in the opposite direction. That which leftists prefer is to be made policy by force rather than being tested in the acid of use.
A classic example is the decree by Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, which brushed aside a social norm thousands of years old in favor of “doing what comes naturally”. Kennedy quotes a district court’s ruling in a same-sex marriage case:
[I]t is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of the love and commitment between same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples.
It may be illogical, but only if one grants the premises implicit in that statement. A key one is that people ignore signals sent by the state. They do not, of course, because of behavioral conditioning and the power of the state to enforce its edicts. (Consider, for example, the cake-makers, florists, and photographers who dared to say that they wouldn’t provide services for same-sex “weddings” and have been punished severely for their impunity.) People do heed the signals sent by the state, and the minions of the state count on that because the state cannot be everywhere all the time. (For every brave cake-maker there are thousands of complaisant shopkeepers, managers, and executives — eager to line up behind the new dispensation for fear of ostracism, and worse.)
And so, when the state undermines long-standing norms that discourage divorce, sodomy, and homosexual coupling, such behaviors become legitimate despite their anti-social effects. Certainly, there were such behaviors before they were legitimated by the state, but they were the exceptions that underscored the norms. The state has normalized the exceptions.
If anyone can be blamed for the low estate of social norms today, it is John Stuart Mill. He is the father of modern leftism, though he is usually thought of as a proponent of “classical liberalism”. Mill’s harm principle, enunciated in his long essay, On Liberty (1869), is the sand upon which leftism is built:
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. [Chapter I, paragraph 9]
This seemingly libertarian principle is in fact anti-libertarian, as I explain at length in “On Liberty”. In that post I focus on harm. As I say there,
the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others. That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy.
Here is Mill, again:
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. [Chapter I, paragraph 5]
There’s the rub. Who decides when the “tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling” is too oppressive? In the end, it must be the state.
“State” is nothing more than an impressive-sounding word that really denotes the amalgam of elected officials, judges, bureaucrats, interest groups, corporate Quislings, and “reliable” voters who control the power of government — even when the more statist of the two major parties is formally out of power.
There are those who say that the state embodies the nation, which is like saying that the lion-tamer embodies the lion. The state most certainly is not society, but it is has the power to be far more tyrannical than society’s “prevailing opinion and feeling”.
Mill’s touchy-feely followers — libertarians and old-fashioned “liberals” — made a bargain with the devil when they opted to empower the state to overthrow those despised social norms. When long-established rules of behavior are sundered willy-nilly the result is a breakdown of the voluntary order known as civil society.
Liberty — the state of peaceful, willing, and beneficially cooperative coexistence, based on mutual trust, respect, and forbearance — depends on the institutions of society. It is those institutions — 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.
The state usurps civil society through agencies vested with primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters (e.g., public schools, health insurance for the elderly), and funding 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. (Why should I — or any reasonable person who isn’t in thrall to “intellectual” fads — trust a person who advocates infanticide in the womb or birth canal, who believes that anal intercourse is a natural act of love, who insists that science is “settled” by consensus, or who wants to establish a single-payer system of health-care with its inevitable death panels? I could go on, but you get the idea.)
Yes, there have been some actual wrongs that have been sustained by social norms. The worst wrong in American history was slavery, which drew on a widespread disdain for blacks as intellectually inferior and a fear of them as violent savages. This isn’t quite the same thing as a norm that prescribes behavior, but it underlies the now mainly tacit agreement among most whites (even affluent “liberals”) to “hold the line” against social integration. It’s important to note that the norm wasn’t restricted to the South, nor did it die with the end of slavery. Nor could it die, because it has a basis in truth — a truth that leftists embrace subtly, but tellingly, in the bigotry of low expectations.
Let me be perfectly clear: I am by no means apologizing for slavery. But it wasn’t a social norm per se; it was a practice that was validated, in part, by a social norm (prevailing attitudes toward blacks). Slavery was far from a universal practice; in 1860, about one-third of the families in the South owned slaves. More families undoubtedly would have owned slaves had they been able to afford them, but slavery wasn’t the norm in the South, and far from the norm in the North, even though most Northern whites shared the prevailing view of blacks. On that score, I quote a quintessential Northerner, the Great Emancipator himself:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness—and that is the case of Judge Douglas’s old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson. [Laughter.] I will also add to the remarks I have made (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject), that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.] [Abraham Lincoln, in the 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858]
(The prevailing attitude in the North was the same more than 100 years later, when I left the North for a job in the South, and found the natives to be like those I had left behind. Nor are attitudes really any different today, as far as I can tell — especially among affluent “liberals” who undoubtedly pay lip service to “diversity”.)
Slavery was, above all, an economic institution that was kept in place by the political power of slave-owners, to the benefit of not a few Northern manufacturers, merchants, and bankers. To put it another way, slavery was really the product of state action at the behest of special interests. It doesn’t take a social norm to produce a great evil. All it takes is political power.
In summary, neither slavery nor any other wrong negates the irreplaceable value of social norms as an essential civilizing force. Nor do such wrongs validate the state’s power to override long-standing norms. That power is a two-edged sword. A state that is powerful enough to abolish slavery is also powerful enough to enact slavery of a different kind: forcing people to surrender a large portion of their income (and thus wealth) for the benefit of groups favored by the state.
“Thanks” to the state — and despite long-standing social norms — we now have not only 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 foster disease, promiscuity, and familial instability. The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of leftists (and their clientele and enablers), who 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.
Those who scorn social norms often mock the “social oppression” that is captured in “What will the neighbors think?” But “social repression” is always with us. “What will the neighbors think?” has simply been replaced among leftists by “What will my ‘liberal’ friends think if I question today’s ‘liberal’ dogmas?” Those dogmas have ranged, over the decades, from eugenics (even before Hitler became a household word), prohibition, repeal of prohibition, peace through unilateral disarmament, overpopulation, global cooling, peak oil, global warming, carbon footprints, recycling, income inequality, unconscious racism, white privilege, forced integration, forced segregation (if blacks want it), coeducation, mixed-sex dorms, single-sex schools, any reference to or image of a firearm, keeping score, winning, cultural appropriation, diversity, globalization, free speech (not), homophobia, same-sex “marriage”, prohibition of smoking (pot excepted), gender “assignment” at birth, “free” college for all, “settled science”, collective guilt (but only for straight, white, conservative males of European descent, and Germans in 1933-1945), racial profiling and stereotyping (except when leftists do it), etc., etc., etc. All of which can be categorized as the triumph of hope over facts and experience.
“Social repression” — leftist style — now runs amok in the land. Witness political correctness in the nth degree, shout-downs of conservative speakers, trigger warnings, the demand for “safe spaces” where contrary views aren’t uttered, the banning of conservative views from social media, etc., etc., etc. Old-fashioned “social repression” didn’t hold a candle to the oppressiveness and destructiveness of today’s version.
Leftism, with its profusion of socially destructive dicta, is undoubtedly the least natural of political stances. It arises not from nationalistic or religious fervor, an informed view of human nature, or a principled view of rights and responsibilities. It arises from the political dilettantism of the spoiled children of capitalism. It has split the country into warring social camps — mostly in rhetoric but sometimes in actual battle.
It’s the left’s fault.
John Craig, “The Left vs. Natural Instincts“, American Renaissance, January 18, 2018
Theodore Dalrymple, “Mary Neal Lives On“, Taki’s Magazine, January 13, 2018
Theodore Dalrymple, “An Uncivil Society“, Taki’s Magazine, March 31, 2018
Rod Dreher, “A Time of Tribalism“, The American Conservative, April 27, 2018
Rod Dreher, “‘The Therapeutic Is Our Ultimate Terrorist’“, The American Conservative, April 28, 2018
Brian Jones, “Civic Chaos and the Myth of Autonomy“, Public Discourse, January 25, 2018
John O. McGinnis, “The Divide between Jefferson and Adams on Human Nature Is Ours Too“, Law and Liberty, January 17, 2018
Francis Menton, “Climate Science and the Process of Orthodoxy Enforcement“, Manhattan Contrarian, January 14, 2018
Gilbert T. Sewall, “The Man Who Foresaw the West’s Fantasia“, The American Conservative, January 25, 2018
Amy Wax, “Are We Free to Discuss America’s Real Problems?“, Imprimis, January 2018
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
The Left’s Agenda
In Defense of Marriage
The Left and Its Delusions
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Society and the State
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Getting Liberty Wrong
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
Abortion Rights and Gun Rights
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
The Writing on the Wall
How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Judicial Supremacy: Judicial Tyranny
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
There’s More to It Than Religious Liberty
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Transgender Fad and Its Consequences
The Left and “the People”
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Roundup: Civil War, Solitude, Transgenderism, Academic Enemies, and Immigration
Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech, and the Demise of Civility
Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm
What Is Going On? A Stealth Revolution
Disposition and Ideology
How’s Your (Implicit) Attitude?
Down the Memory Hole
“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”
Sexual Misconduct: A New Crime, a New Kind of Justice
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
Mass Murder: Reaping What Was Sown
Andrew Sullivan Almost Gets It
Utopianism, Leftism, and Dictatorship
“Democracy” Thrives in Darkness — and Liberty Withers
Preemptive (Cold) Civil War
My View of Mill, Endorsed
The Framers, Mob Rule, and a Fatal Error
Abortion, the “Me” Generation, and the Left
Abortion Q and A
Negative Rights, Etc.