Norms and Freedom

In his latest book, Luigi Zingales asks why economists aren’t more willing to talk about what the optimal norms are for a successful economy, rather than focusing exclusively on what the optimal laws are. Over at Modeled Behavior, Adam Ozimek asks:

Is this a libertarian, conservative, or progressive idea? If you view the pressure of social norms as a way to restrict individual freedom, then this can easily be seen as progressive or conservative, depending on the behavior being restricted.

This question has a history behind it. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill made it clear that he considered social stigma to be a form of coercion. This was especially so when it influenced who people were willing to do business with:

For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.

Thomas Sowell, a Hayekian, spent a fair amount of space in Vision of the Anointed criticizing Mill for his anti-stigma arguments. For Sowell and Hayek, norms are the very fabric of the social order. They come from a school of thought dating back to Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and David Hume. While Mill shared much in common intellectually with the latter two individuals, on this subject he is much closer to Rousseau, who believed we were born free, only to be shackled by social conventions soon after.

This debate centers on different ideas of what coercion is. On Sowell’s side of the debate, there’s a fairly clear line–if you are doing something because of the explicit or implied threat of violence, you are being coerced. The threat of refusing to do business with someone is not coercion because no one is entitled to do business with anyone; the right to choose who I do business with is an inherent part of my freedom of association. The fact that I am choosing not to do business with you because you have taken some action or hold some belief that there is a social stigma against does not make it coercion, any more than if I was motivated simply by the fact that I think you are ugly or something.

How Norms Change

The ancient Greek sophist Protagoras argued that morality is something that human beings are constantly teaching to one another, similar to how we are constantly teaching each other language. The moral sense theorists, and more recently cognitive scientists and moral psychologists, have given us an idea of the mechanisms through which this co-learning occurs.

Most of the time we are taught to stick to a set of norms that has existed for a very long time. But moral change does happen.

Take the American Civil Rights Movement as an example. I do not think that its progress should be measured in the laws it managed to get enacted. Its progress should be measured in the extent to which it moved our moral framework.

Moral changes, like all social changes, start with small groups and spread in a diffusion of innovations-like process. Most such innovations never spread at all. This social trial and error form the basis of the engine of all institutional change, moral or otherwise.

As moral change follows the logic of the diffusion of innovations, we would expect successful revolutions to have the advantages predicted by that literature. The activists of the Civil Rights Movement did not just give speeches and publish books; they engaged in many forms of verbal and visual rhetoric, and took many dramatic actions, which put their perspective in the context of traditional American ideals and religious doctrine. Though their success constituted a change in the norms of the country, it was more likely precisely because they framed the change within preexisting norms.

The Limits of Individual Influence

If you think that you can affect great changes as a lone individual, you are setting yourself up for disillusionment. In all of social life, everyone is but a tiny part of a much larger whole. Even the President of the United States, and others with even greater discretionary authority, face constraints by the very nature of the systems they are working within. Individual impact varies dramatically, to be sure, but even the most exceptional individual’s influence will always be small compared to the scope of the system that is acting upon them. It is also probably reasonable to assume that it is highly unlikely you will become the Martin Luther King, Jr. of your particular moral movement.

Once we have given up on individual exceptionalism, we are left with the same tools that human beings have been using for as long as we have formed groups. You cannot hope to shape the moral compass of a nation with a single blog post, but you are influential within the group of 100 or so people you are most closely associated with, and especially the 15 or so people in your inner circle–see Paul Adams on this subject, and his book for a more thorough review of the literature.

You must also accept that this group will have as much or more influence on you as you have on them. In both how you influence and are influenced by them, your social groups are the venue for your participation in all social change, including moral change.

Participating in Change

Dan Klein once said that he felt like he shouldn’t be in GMU’s economics department, where there were plenty of people who already agreed with him, but instead should go to a more mainstream department where he could work to change minds. This is a misunderstanding of how minds are actually changed. If Klein went to such a department, he would probably just become marginalized within that community. Rather than increasing his influence, it would almost certainly reduce it.

At GMU, a community of libertarians has formed, and a culture has developed within the department. Students who go to grad school there are immersed in that culture while they are pursuing their degree. They integrate into and are influenced by that culture to varying extents. Many then take that culture with them when they move on to other things. This is not unique to GMU’s economics department–all academic departments develop a culture of some kind, which acts upon and is acted upon by the students that pass through it.

We tend to have a broadcast model of influence in our heads–we think that by writing blog posts and going on TV we will change people’s minds. But the vast majority of influence happens at the level of a community. This is true even in exceptional cases–Marginal Revolution may be an influential blog, but the economics blogosphere as a community has more impact overall on the parameters of the discussions than any one of its members. Tyler Cowen’s biggest individual impact on this discussion is as a member of a community of high visibility individuals, such as Paul Krugman and Scott Sumner.

The norms developed within the communities of which we are a part are then subject to the dynamics of the diffusion of innovations–they could gain mainstream adoption, they could remain niche, or they could hit some middle point between the two extremes. They could persist for long periods of time at whatever level they attain, or they could flame out quickly and disappear.

To the extent that you are encouraging certain norms within your community which could eventually diffuse beyond it, you are participating in the process of moral change.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.

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