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!