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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/14361/normal-is-what-everyone-else-is%e2%80%a6/

Normal Is What Everyone Else Is…

October 25, 2010 by

Earlier, Jeffrey Tucker observed, “It’s too bad that everyone can’t just agree to let people alone to do and believe what they wish provided they do not impose on others.” The question this raises is a simple one that libertarians sometimes overlook: What drives the interventionist (or the statist)?

The answer is best conveyed by the phrase “social norms.” Whether leftist or rightist, the interventionist is motivated by the desire to establish — or change — the perception of what is socially “normal.” I distinguish interventionist from statist here, because many interventionists do not advocate full state control; they do, however, believe the government can normalize — or “nudge” people towards — certain social behaviors.

My old friend Katie Baxter recently opined on the subject of “social norms” with great eloquence:

Why the hell are so many of these norms still “normal” in this day and age? I’m not talking about societal norms that exist for obvious reasons. I mean, it seems pretty clear why murder is inappropriate in any society that expects to function. That is clearly a rational norm. But what about other things?

In one conversation, the topic that jump-started confusion over norms was marriage. Two of my friends who have an unconventional relationship recently got married. The decision to legally formalize their relationship had more to do with legal practicalities than anything else; they are not the kind of people who need to follow the expected conventional path in terms of marriage. Nor did they have a traditional wedding, reception, etc.

For some reason, this seems to bother many people they know. Why? Why would this have any bearing on other people? It doesn’t. And yet other people seem to feel the need to interject judgment on them for not doing it the “right” way.

This behavior eludes me. Why does it matter if someone does all the traditional stuff? How two people choose to live their life together is really only relevant to the two people involved. So what if YOU want a traditional wedding … are you so unwilling to accept that not everyone might want the same things you do?

Now, Katie noted it’s “obvious” to oppose murder. But that is a question of rights first and norms second. The wedding example, in contrast, raises no question of rights, but it is a subject on which people freely express an opinion based on certain expectations of conformance to “social norms.” Katie asked why.

I think the answer is simple. When a person expresses disapproval of what she perceives as a deviation from a social norm, she does so to reinforce the correctness — and importance — of the norm to herself. It’s like when you take someone to your favorite restaurant and you constantly ask him, “Do you like the food?” You want the other person to reinforce your belief that this is a good restaurant.

Social norms emanate from the market — these norms are sometimes called “fads” — and do not necessarily result in government intervention. What politics provides is the breeding ground for two interrelated groups that seek to reinforce their beliefs through the manipulation of social norms. The first group seeks to preserve existing norms (“protect traditional marriage”); the second seeks to establish new norms (“universal health care”). You can label these groups right and left, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, etc. The important thing is that both groups reject the idea of government as a protector of rights and embrace, wholeheartedly, the notion of government as a prime mover of social norms.

The concept of social norms goes far beyond the political battles seen in Congress. Norms often involve more basic questions of social class and expectations. Jeffrey Tucker’s own recent book, Bourbon for Breakfast, raises the issue of social norms in its title. Jeffrey noted, “We believe, for whatever reason, that drinking hard liquor in the morning is unseemly, contrary to social norms, something to hide, a habit of the lower classes that is dangerous or even evil.”

While American society does not maintain the more rigid class structures of, say, Medieval feudalism, the use and control of social norms creates something of a soft caste system. Let’s try this hypothetical. Say you go to your 10-year college reunion and you run into your two roommates from sophomore year. The first roommate, John, went to law school and now works as an mid-level staff lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission. The other roommate, George, decided against graduate school and has spent the past few years as a professional poker player.

Most people’s sense of social norms would lead them to conclude that John is more successful. After all, he has a graduate degree, a respectable office job, and more importantly, he holds a position of governmental authority. George is just a slacker who is wasting his life in the poker rooms of Las Vegas.

But is that really true? George may have an unconventional career, but he’s managed to support himself (and build a nice savings account) through a voluntary activity that requires a certain degree of skill and time commitment. John may have the more socially prominent job, but that job consists almost entirely of violating the rights of other people: threatening small businessmen with confiscation of their life savings because he disagrees with statements on their websites. John provides a “service” nobody asked for; his salary comes from taxpayers who have no ability to supervise or fire him; even his vaunted law school education — at a taxpayer-funded university, no less — was paid for by government-subsidized student loans that John hasn’t bothered to pay back yet. From a libertarian view of social norms, George is a self-employed entrepreneur; John is a parasite.

Katie asked, “[A]re you so unwilling to accept that not everyone might want the same things you do?” For many people, the answer is “no” precisely because they cannot grasp why they had to follow the social norm while someone else was “allowed” to deviate. Again, it’s all about reinforcing your decisions more so than criticizing someone else’s life. If you spent a year and thousands of dollars planning what you thought was a “dream” wedding, it’s going to bother you that your sister flew to Vegas and eloped. It makes you ask, “Did I do something wrong?” and that’s when people often fall back upon “social norms” and turn their insecurities against the other person.

We all understand how this manifests itself through the political system. A local council imposes zoning requirements to maintain the “historical character” of a neighborhood. Knowledge of traditional herbal remedies is censored in favor of FDA-approved pharmaceuticals. People are forced to buy a government-approved form of “health insurance.” Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!


Phinn October 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm

>>>What drives the interventionist (or the statist)?

An abusive childhood.

People find it intolerable that they were abused in childhood. To do so is to morally condemn their parents, which is something that children are not allowed to do. They are taught from an early age that any moral challenge of the parents is unacceptable. From an evolutionary perspective, for a child to do anything other than placate his parents, however badly they treat him, would would be tantamount to suicide.

So, human children learn to conform themselves to the emotional and behavioral needs of their parents, whatever they may be. However a child is raised, almost without exception, is how that child learns to define normal.Then, in later life, in order to maintain this fiction, the child grows into an adult who will do ANYTHING to keep from facing the truth of his own childhood abuse. He normalizes his abuse, by spreading it, repeating it, making it the NORM for the whole world.

This is especially true if there is no one in the child’s life who was a sympathetic witness to the abuse, someone who could have provided a moral frame of reference. Without that, the child loses all ability to define abuse as anything other than normal, or even as good.

Statist morality comes from families in which children are treated like underlings and slaves. They grow up to think that we all owe sacred duties to distant and unresponsive law-givers.

Bala October 25, 2010 at 9:25 pm

There’s a lot of truth in what you say.

” People find it intolerable that they were abused in childhood. To do so is to morally condemn their parents, which is something that children are not allowed to do. ”

Down here where I live (in India) reverence for elders is held out as a moral ideal. You are “supposed to” respect your parents. No wonder then that Indians at large are as interventionist as they can ever be. There is a concept out here of the “maa-i-baap sarkar”. That’s government as mother and father rolled into one. You just can’t question the wisdom of the maa-i-baap. It’s not done.

Russ the Apostate October 25, 2010 at 9:31 pm

This “maa-i-baap sarkar” is simply an instance of the government taking advantage of a cultural norm to give it a veneer of respectability; it has nothing to do with abuse.

Bala October 25, 2010 at 11:13 pm

I think you got it wrong. It is people on their own treating the sarkaar as a maa-i-baap. Government did not create that concept. Further, the concept “maa-i-baap” can be applied to any entity that people decide to submit to. It could even be another person.

I also think you have a different understanding of the term “abuse”. There are many forms of treatment of a child that you may not recognise as “abuse” while I may. Just as an example, I know a lot of people (at least where I live) who do not think they are doing anything wrong by force-feeding a 2 or 3 year old child while I think it is wrong (except in very exceptional circumstances) and that it harms the child psychologically. I also think beating a child to discipline her is wrong while I know a lot of people who think it is sometimes OK to do so.

Russ the Apostate October 26, 2010 at 12:24 am

Bala wrote:
“It is people on their own treating the sarkaar as a maa-i-baap. Government did not create that concept.”

I did not say they did. I said that the government took advantage of a cultural norm, i.e. a cultural norm that pre-existed the government.

“I also think you have a different understanding of the term “abuse”.”

I think it’s completely irrelevant. Let’s attack the substance of our opponents’ philosophies, and not psycho-babble-ize them, lest they start ranting about libertarians being anal expulsives who weren’t properly toilet trained or some such rot.

Bala October 26, 2010 at 1:19 am

” I said that the government took advantage of a cultural norm, i.e. a cultural norm that pre-existed the government. ”

I am saying that there was no “taking advantage of”. Rather, there was a “working to the advantage of”. That there was a readiness among people to accept an entity as a “maa-i-baap” made it possible for governments to make their oppressive policies appear fairly benign and in fact beneficial to the very people they were oppressing. Some Indians speak of having moved from slavery under the “pukka sahib” to slavery under the “burra sahib”.

I am just hypothesising that a population that did not have the concept of a “maa-i-baap” would have been that much tougher to enslave and that this odious concept makes it possible for government to make interventionism appear respectable or even venerable.

” Let’s attack the substance of our opponents’ philosophies, and not psycho-babble-ize them ”

I don’t think Phinn’s attempt was to psycho-babble-ize them as you put it. He was answering a question.

>>>What drives the interventionist (or the statist)?

He was trying to give an explanation for why ordinary people think as interventionists do. This is by no means a justification or even a complete explanation but could point towards what we should and should not do in our own personal spheres to make a more free world possible. Bringing up children without a conditioned readiness to submit to authority could be one of the answers in the long-run.

Russ the Apostate October 25, 2010 at 9:29 pm

“An abusive childhood.”


People can be “interventionist” for any number of reasons, depending on what particular form of intervention one is talking about. An anarchist trying to reduce “interventionism” (i.e. any political stance that the anarchist doesn’t agree with) to some sort of psychological problem is no better than a leftist trying to do the same.

Gil October 25, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Touché! If anything it’s the Anarchists who were abused. They thought it unfair therefore they make the assumption that anyone who bosses them around is an abuser. The only authoritah an Anarchist would abide by is the power he built himself and is offended if he feels a subordinate is trying to usurp what power he has so inevitably a great many abused children become abusers themselves.

Inquisitor October 26, 2010 at 7:55 am

Or because they’re simply not mentally deficient enough to tolerate being ruled by an institution with no real warrant… i.e. they are not obsequious little sheep trying to please “daddy” or “mommy” state…

Nicholas Gray October 25, 2010 at 9:09 pm

I’ve noted that you can define philosophers by the milieu they are in. Kung Fu Tze (Confucius) lived in a time of powerful warlords who had savage battles- so, of course, his idea of a better society was one with someone having the power to control people who would otherwise be warlords! Plato grew up in a rampant Democracy which ordered his beloved teacher, socrates, to kill himself, so he opposed Democracy.
When you look into the family history of some people, it is as though Society is expected to make up for any perceived lack in their own family. I wonder if Karl Marx’s family was dysfunctional?

J. Murray October 26, 2010 at 6:03 am

Marx rarely left his own mansion. Most of his writings were his own imaginations running wild as he stared at his family owned factory many miles away out his bedroom window.

Nicholas Gray October 26, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Was Karl raised in a dysfunctional family? Were his parents good or bad?

Rob Mandel October 25, 2010 at 9:35 pm

In the several years I have been a daily reader of this blog, no post has ever come so close to perfectly speaking directly to me.

to wit: I did not go to my high school graduation, nor my college one either. In high school, in lieu of walking, I went on a tuna fishing trip with my father. gee, it just coincided with my graduation. bummer!! All my teachers and classmates thought I was insane, bizarre, stupid, etc. You name it. Didn’t care. Still tell the story to people, almost 25 years later, and they think 1) I’m lying and 2) when they realize I’m not, they’re shocked.

remember registering as a libertarian in college. Yes, in the late 80′s. (Yeah, later I thought the republican party had changed…how wrong I was!!! now I’m none at all.)

I’m a kayak fisherman. It’s just me on the kayak on the ocean. I have always done things my way, and will always do them that way. At least as far as I can.

Speaking of the marriage “issue”, which isn’t in any sense, I have drawn the wrath and ire of both my friends both right and left as I have said I am against not just same-sex marriage, but ALL state sanctioned marriage. I am opposed to ALL state marriage. It is a private matter between consenting individuals. Call yourself married, makes no difference to me, whether it’s to one, or ten. What do I care. Don’t force me to accept anything as “normal”, don’t make me pay for your lifestyle, just do as you please peacefully and I will honor your rights as other. The only issue is because of the state and it’s intrusion into our affairs.

I guess my “libertarianism” is because at an early age, I no more cared about the opinion of others than I did to impose my opinions on them. A colleague (and former obama supporter) once asked me “okay, we do things your way” (meaning Austrian theory, or whatever he understood it to be) and I replied, “We wouldn’t ever do things my way. There is no ‘my way’, rather there is simply peaceful mutual trade, non-intervention, non-aggression, and absolute respect for property rights. ‘My way’ would be me being unable have things ‘my way’, as that’s only possible through force “. I guess so few have ever really thought of it that way. It’s complete cognitive dissonance. The idea that one can tell another what they ought to do is so ingrained in our collective psyche.

Of course that doesn’t mean within the private sphere, I cannot request that one not smoke in my house. Because I can, and I do.

great topic.

J. Murray October 26, 2010 at 6:06 am

I wish I could have missed my high school and college graduation ceremonies, but both basically said if I don’t go through all the pomp and circumstance, I won’t get one at all. It’s part of the requirements, they said. They were an awful experience. Sitting in a basketball gymnasium (both of them) for hours on end watching endless strings of people cross a stage with little pockets of people here and there blowing airhorns or making a lot of noise. It was a full wasted day in both cases.

And you summed up libertarianism perfectly, everyone doing things their own way without being stuck doing it someone else’s way.

Bruce Koerber October 25, 2010 at 9:41 pm

What Drives The Interventionist (Or The Statist)?

It is either economic ignorance of the fact that all human intervention into the economy is a corruption of a divine institution; or it is an immoderate ego that overwhelms the rational thought that a small finite mind cannot possibly comprehend the infinite intricacies of the market processes. Such ego-driven interpretation and intervention is an illness that afflicts all of us in these Dark Ages of economics.

Joshua Park October 26, 2010 at 2:12 am

I might add to Katie that in a perfectly State-less society, it would be anyone’s right to disapprove or even disassociate with someone based on something like an unconventional marriage. E.g., Harry and Sally get married on a candle-lit pentagram in a graveyard and instead of releasing doves, they kill their pet goat to seal the deal. If Jamal were to be apalled by their lifestyle and backgrounds, he’d be free to refuse to do business with them. That wouldn’t constitute aggression.

I only bring it up lest we think that the absence of a State means the absence of social stigmas.

guard October 26, 2010 at 7:16 am

Nothing contributes more to tyranny than good intentions. I believe the basis of all desire to rule over others is the desire to be God. Make your own creation by magical power. One can see this in the idea that merely passing laws will fix everything, force being in the end the final magical power. It should be obvious that the world I create and the one you create will be mutually exclusive. We must either compromise and agree on a created world, which would mean that neither of us is God, or one of us must be sacrificed for the creation of the other.
Politics is religion.

Mark October 26, 2010 at 10:22 am

Natural selection. It’s often easier to take the property of others by deception or force than to obtain comparable property through your own efforts. That confers a survival advantage on the coercive party. All animals have this instinct to a greater or lesser degree, and humans just rationalize the instinct. Our society reflects the instinct. That’s why rational arguments don’t work to persuade many people.

Phinn October 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm


Hardly. It’s not exactly radical idea — that we form our attitudes, propensities, and tolerance for violence as the result of childhood experiences, particularly as the result of parental violence.

And our attitudes toward intimidation. And guilt. And obedience to authority. And all the rest.

This is nothing new or groundbreaking when we observe how childhood correlates to one’s working life, or romantic life, etc.

But for some reason, it’s considered outrageous and preposterous to suggest that abuse, domination, control, forced obedience, punishment and intimidation experienced in childhood could have any effect on one’s later attitude toward statism, or propensity to support it.

Statism is the tolerance or support of systematic, regularized, institutionalized violence. That sort of thing is learned at home.

Salvador October 26, 2010 at 1:14 pm

So the basis of the state is in normal human behavior? Maybe that explains why anarchism is such a fringe movement… who woulda thunk it?

BioTube October 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Abolitionism was once a fringe movement.

Salvador October 26, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Comparing abolition to anarchy is comparing apples and oranges. Abolition only required that we consider other races as human. Anarchy requires us to stop being human and act like angels. It does not work otherwise, hence the need for a state, and also hence why states always outcompete anarchic societies every time. Thus, even praxeology indirectly supports the state.

Phinn October 27, 2010 at 6:25 am

And how is that working out for you? How well is it working to support the existence of States, and attempt to justify it on the grounds that they are needed to counteract the non-angelic tendencies of man?

I assume you mean that we need some kind of minimal, night watchman, anti-aggression responder, yes? The United States was conceived as such a thing (or at least it was sold as such), and ended up becoming the largest, most expansive, most influential, most interventionist global empire in the history of the world.

States always grow to become as large and intrusive as possible, as large as the wealth and susceptibility of the populace will allow. The United States enjoyed a few short moments as the freest economy on earth. This rapidly built up enough wealth that the government then used it as fuel to become incredibly large and domineering, such that within four score and seven years, it was ready to invade and conquer any part that wanted independence, and then set about a war of genocide, then set about taking over other countries’ empires, then built its own.

There’s your experiment in minimal statism for you.

Ryan October 27, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Submission to government means that you trust that those who reach power in government will be greater angels than your neighbors in anarchy.

But demanding others submit to government on the basis of this belief of yours? Isn’t that a bit presumptuous regarding the importance of your own beliefs and values in someone else’s life?

Salvador October 27, 2010 at 4:11 pm

No, the people choose government themselves. It’s the praxeological outcome, not a result of me wanting to force my own “beliefs”. Anarchy sounds nice on paper, but government is the reality that people want. It outcompetes anarchy, and it is what the vast majority of people consent to when faced with a choice between no government and government.

NZ Weddings September 23, 2011 at 9:00 pm

“The decision to legally formalize their relationship had more to do with legal practicalities than anything else; they are not the kind of people who need to follow the expected conventional path in terms of marriage. Nor did they have a traditional wedding, reception, etc.”

Though it doesn’t need to be traditional, they maybe planned it for a long time.

Heather Wright September 24, 2011 at 5:00 am

I whole-heartedly agree with you; people only seem comfortable when things conform to their version of “normal”. This is the driving force in conversion for religion. It seems to be human nature in that sameness provides a level of safety. If I know that you are like me, I know what pleases you and I know what sets you off. That way, I am able to deal with you and you give me few, if any, surprises. Even though I understand intellectually why people get so involved with what others should be doing, I lack the interest to do so myself. I concur with your commentor — who cares?

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