Monday, June 9, 2014


I have made a case many times for the power of societal pressure as a control on behavior1, and have even based much of my current political philosophy on the strength of, for lack of a better word, peer pressure, relying upon the state only to prevent violations of individual rights, and falling back on our society, our common culture, to apply the necessary controls upon behaviors that we wish to limits but that do not violate the rights of others2. I have even promised -- though so far filed to deliver -- a comprehensive examination of the matter, looking at the mechanisms of social pressure, the strength of social controls, and the ways in which they could supplement government and serve in the place of any number of laws to which I object.

However, recently, I have noticed one shortcoming in my argument, or, rather, not so much a shortcoming as a necessary preliminary step, one which has yet to be satisfied. You see, in our present state, much of the power of shame has been lost. There is still a strong sense of conformity -- though one that sometimes expresses itself in large groups of identical "nonconformists"3 -- one we can see in the depressing similarity of every internet message board, in the identical "trolls" on every site, on the same taunts hurled out on every discussion site and so on. But shame has lost much of its strength.  We can see this, for example, in the increasing need to lengthen prison sentences. Where once von Mises could argue that the shame felt at arrest allowed for ever lighter sentences, presently prison carries so little stigma in many, perhaps most, circles, that we need to continue increasing penalties, since social pressure does so little to discourage crime.

Some might argue that this loss of a sense of shame makes my plans unworkable4, and, were we planning to introduce my ideal government all at once, I would agree. However, I would make the counter argument that, while our current environment may not allow the use of shame as a control, that means only that there is some groundwork to be done. More than that, it is groundwork we need to undertake whether or not you agree with my theories of government, as I would argue, a state without a sense of shame will not only be unable to implement my ideal state, it will suffer severe problems regardless of the government it selects.

We already discussed one complication of a lack of shame, the need for imprisonment alone to be sufficient penalty to prevent crime, but that is only one problem. A similar problem exists in the civil realm, where a lack of shame would inevitably lead to either the death of contract, and thus all trade more complex than direct, immediate exchange, or else demand bonds, sureties and civil penalties which would impose a massive burden on those who wish to contract, likely bringing about the previously mentioned collapse, just more slowly. Nor does those exhaust the consequences, a lack of shame also implies that many normal social control, from limits upon our behaviors in public to all those little bonds of trust upon which polite society relies, they too will eventually collapse. In the end, if shame disappears altogether, the most likely consequences would be a social atmosphere somewhere between a wild west boom town, full of sharps seeking a mark, and the inhabitants of your average crack house, seeking every opportunity or scam one another to gain an advantage for a moment. It is beyond the scope of this essay to go beyond that point, to discus the probably political consequences of such an environment5, but it should be obvious nothing good is likely to arise.

To return to the other half of my argument, I would say that, though shame is presently poorly represented in our society, that does not make my arguments invalid. To compare to another case, I am personally in favor of a relatively open immigration policy, but would not allow it at the moment, not until we eliminated our current welfare state, or changed our perspective on integration and cultural balkanization. That does not mean I am opposed to open immigration, only that I recognize some reforms need to be made before ti will work. Similarly, I still stand by the proposition that social controls are strong enough to replace many of our laws I see as invalid uses of government power, but before we do so, we need to make some changes in our society.

And the tools are there for such reforms. For example, there are still social controls which have great sway over most of us. There is the previously mentioned conformity for example. And then there are also the principles which support those pressures, which cause us to obey some pressures and ignore others. For example, at present, the romantic tendencies in our larger culture tend to undermine any senses of shame, as well as arguing for novelty over tradition. Were we to change those cultural foundations, replace romanticism with a theory more geared toward a reverence for established traditions and favoring more orderly behavior, then that sense of shame might return, and there would be little standing in the way of the theories I have proposed. Of course, changing society is not an easy thing, and it does not occur overnight, but it can be done, as we can see all around us. Romanticism had been slowly undermining society for a very long time, but as a piece of our larger popular culture, it did not even gain a noteworthy minority until the 1950s or 1960s and did not truly infiltrate the larger mainstream until the 1990s or even later. Granted some aspects were adopted earlier, and some subcultures accepted romantic beliefs earlier, but by and large, in about 60 years Romanticism has reshaped out culture dramatically.

All of this is enough material to support several essays, and I will definitely return to it in the near future, if only to write the often promised essay on social control, probably along with another tracing, as much as possible, the influence of Romanticism on our culture. In any case, please come back often, as I will be revisiting this topic more than once.


1. See "Culture and Government", "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", " Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government" and "Hard Cases Make Bad Laws".

2. See "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse", "The Life Coach Culture", "Harming Society", "In Loco Parentis" and "Another Look at Exploitation".

3. It always amazes me how uniform our supposed free spirits and nonconformists are. Tattoos, piercings, wardrobe, political views and so on, our "counter-culture" is as conformist, if not more so, than our larger society. And it becomes even more so as being "independent" becomes more a part of the larger culture. As the romantic tendencies in our larger culture ( "Cranky Old Man?", "Faux "Maturity"", "Pushing the Envelope", "I Blame the Romantics", "The Adoration of Youth", "In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Deadly Cynicism", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Trophy Spouses", "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity" ) push the mainstream to stress more "independence" the superficial symbols of that independence become ever more identical to one another. I think the best example might be Apple, which urged millions to show their independence by buying their computers, just like all the other "free spirits". I am amazed at how such a proposition could be made with a straight face.

4. See my essay "Civilization and Fear of Death" for a somewhat similar argument, related to the way that those who have no fear of death are largely unmoved by political or societal controls, and thus any society reaching a sufficient level of desperation will inevitably descend into chaos.

5. Without going into detail, or attempting to prove my case, I would argue that the societal chaos of Germany in the 20's was definitely a large part of the eventual authoritarian state that followed. To point to just one cause, we need only consider how your average citizen, given the choice between that sort of chaos or a stable but authoritarian state, would choose.


  1. I’d be curious to read some examples of behaviors that are currently controlled by law that you think would be equally as well managed by peer pressure. I’m having trouble thinking of any, since the establishment of a law would seem to imply that peer pressure wasn’t working.

    You talked about “…relying upon the state only to prevent violations of individual rights…”

    I think the core of this debate goes back to the question of what individual rights are. There are certain basic rights enshrined in the Constitution, meaning the government of the people has affirmed its commitment to protecting those rights; but are those the only rights we have? I think rights are a much more complicated concept than people often recognize. Rights can exist by common agreement, as is assumed under the Constitution; or they can exist because people are essentially able to assert them. So if I am sitting in a chair that doesn’t belong to anyone else and no one is able to make me move, I am asserting that I have the right to sit there, and unless someone can establish that the chair belongs to them or unless someone can force me to move, I have defended that right. This is basically the process by which the laws I presume you have in mind are typically established. When people make laws against smoking, for example, they are asserting what they believe to be their right to clean air. And who is to say they don’t have that right? There is nothing in the Constitution that contradicts it. As long as they can enforce the law, it then becomes their right, in a manner of speaking. Prior to laws being made against it, you could smoke most places because that was YOUR right. If you were in a public park where there were no rules against smoking and someone asked you to put out your cigarette, would be your right to say “no.” One final example: let’s say your son and his friends are playing ball outside and they’re making a bit of noise but nothing terrible. You have a cranky neighbor who comes out and demands that they stop. Do they have to stop? No. They are acting within their rights, even though playing ball and making a bit of noise is not a specifically protected right. Their right to play ball in your yard and be a bit noisy is assumed to exist because no law – no will of a greater majority - exists to say otherwise. Of course when they’re older and they play very loud music late at night, that’s a different story. There are probably laws against that based on other people having asserted their “rights” to a certain amount of peace and quiet.

    Now I know some would say from my comment above that this sort of amounts to might makes right (the might of the majority, that is), but that happens to be the reality, and reality cannot be dismissed or ignored. Ultimately my point is that since your argument for shame begins with the premise about individual rights, then there must first be agreement on what those rights are.

    1. I can list several.

      Let us see:

      Racial discrimination in non-governmental contexts. Rather than forcing racial integration through law suits and government intrusion, outside of the government itself, racial attitudes should be controlled by societal controls. As I have said before, individuals should have the freedom to be as stupid and racist as they wish, even in hiring, selling, renting, and so on. It may be harmful to some for a time, but in the long run, it is actually more harmful economically to those doing the discriminating. And, in truth, social controls would likely be more effective,and certainly produce less resentment than explicit government action.

      Next, drug laws. I know, you think I am wrong, but in 1925 you probably would have predicted a similar catastrophe from legalizing demon rum, yet per capita drinking has not reached the heights of early prohibition in recent years. And the crime and violence of prohibition bootleggers is a thing of the past. As is a lot of related government corruption and private attitudes of disrespect for the law.

      Broadcast television. I believe the FCC, if it existed at all, should merely keep track of the ownership of specific airwaves in specific regions, and licenses should be wholly free market. We have seen on cable that a (mostly) unregulated market responds quite well to consumer desires without the government, and produced many family friendly channels without any demand to create them by the state. Likewise, news is more plentiful on cable than broadcast, eliminating the silly notion for profit, unregulated broadcasting would ignore "public service" broadcasting. (Since the FCC considers news as such.)

      I could go on, but those seem three good examples. I will have to wait to reply to the rest of your post, as I am working right now, but I will do my best sometime later today.

    2. On racial discrimination there’s no real way to test your theory but If you’ve read news reports from the days leading up to the Civil Rights Act, where discrimination was endemic and there were ugly confrontations between blacks trying to assert the right to equality and whites who were against it, then you know that the collective rejection of discrimination that is the norm today did not exist back then. If you had suggested to the pro-civil rights community that “…individuals should have the freedom to be as stupid and racist as they wish…,” and that social pressure would fix the problem, they would have laughed. Clearly social pressure was NOT fixing the problem, at least not until that social pressure had the teeth of the law behind it, and I think it’s fair then to say that the history of what occurred does not support your ideas of how things would work in theory. This is the perfect example of the tug-of-war over “rights” that I was explaining above. Some claimed to have the right to be as racist as they wish, but ultimately they lost the ability to defend that right and so it disappeared.

      On the drug laws, I’m not sure what catastrophe it is that you think I’ve predicted but I don’t recall ever making such a prediction. What I’ve argued all along is that drug use has the potential to impact innocent bystanders, therefore people are within their rights to have a say about it if that’s what they choose to do. Personally I would outlaw it because I think the cost to others for the sake of someone’s pleasure in getting stoned is too high; but I believe it’s a local issue and everyone should get a vote and if I’m overruled, so be it. I can move.

      On the FCC I’m not quite sure I understand. Are you saying there should be no regulation of content on the non-cable airwaves or are you saying you just don’t want an agency like the FCC in charge? In any event, if the argument is that social pressure will do the job that laws do, I don’t get this one. I have DirectTV and can see a vast array of show titles advertising the availability of porn (“Slut Vixens from Hell,” etc.). As far as I know hard porn still isn’t available on the regular stations, so I think that clearly shows that laws have achieved a result different from what mere social pressure did.

    3. OK, lots to say:

      1. Discrimination: As I have written elsewhere, yes, discrimination was a problem, however much of it in the south was actually by force of law, not by individual decision, which I agree is wrong. What was not by law, but individual choice was not ended by laws, just driven underground, and probably made more long lasting by the very fact. When you tell someone he is wrong, and force him to act against his beliefs, it tends to harden those beliefs, not end them. Racism in the south did not end because of laws, but because over time attitudes changed. Laws did not do that. (I would point for a proof to those universities which have the most aggressive racial preferences. Studies show they also have the most racist incidents and generally the worst racial attitudes.)

      2. Drug laws: I assume you think legalizing drugs would produce some sort of catastrophe as that alone would justify an arbitrary elimination of individual freedom. And as drug laws also create tremendous amounts of violent crime (as did Prohibition with brewers and distillers), it must be a pretty serious consequence. Otherwise, I can't see how drug laws can be justified. If it is something as trivial as "if you do drugs you will waste your life, and those who choose to be around you might have ill effects", then it seems an absurdly high price to pay, our individual liberties, a massive expansion of government, arbitrary power (eg forfeiture laws, which operate on "guilty until proven innocent", banking laws which invade privacy to a tremendous degree, etc.), tremendous amount of violent crime, prison crowding resulting in early release of many felons, whatever contribution it makes to the destruction of the inner city, etc.

      3. FCC: Yes, I believe broadcasting should be unregulated. The right always tells the left not to have the government act as parent, that is a parent's job, but when it comes to broadcast tv, they say the reverse. If something broadcast on tv offends you, don't watch. if enough don't, then it goes away. This model has worked for cable, which is nearly as ubiquitous as broadcast tv, without causing any societal collapse.

      I am sure you now think I am some looney libertarian, but my arguments are no more extreme than Madison saying the state cannot fund roadways or famine relief. I believe very firmly the state exists to protect rights and that is all. All other choices are up to individuals. Yes, choices can be harmful, to you, to those who chose to associate with you, and so on, but regulation does not end such harm, just ends up punishing some afterward, and often at the expense of much more harm being done to others, or justifying acts which are harmful. (I know, a bit roundabout way to say it, but I am short on words and time, so I will explain later.) Nothing will stop individuals from doing things that are "harmful" to them or others by some definition. And "harm" is too loose a standard to apply. Harm can be turned to justify just about anything. (Just think of all the terrible laws "for the children".) We need the law to be precise and defined or you end up with the government we have now or worse, as any loophole will grow. And thus, for better or worse, I believe in limiting government, and leaving other limits on behavior to individuals and groups applying non-violent societal pressure.

      (Of course, in a totally free society, that pressure could include refusing to sell, rent, and otherwise have any dealings with them, so it is even stronger than today, and social pressure today exerts a pretty strong force already.)

    4. Actually, allow me to offer one more example, that does a pretty good job of demonstrating the power of social controls (and one I am likely to use in a future essay). I mentioned those wild west boom towns and the wild, lawless atmosphere. And they were just that, largely lawless and wild, with fights and gambling and prostitution and drunkenness and so on. However, as the mines dried up, or became settled and established, with prospectors moving on -- or in the case of rail towns, as the construction moved on and rail crews moved -- the towns began to be settled by families of farmers, established miners rather than prospectors, small business owners and so on. And in every case, the towns that had been lawless dens of iniquity grew into staid and established towns. If you doubt this, think of the fact that when the massive migration west began, Council Bluffs Iowa was such a town.

      Nor was the change the result of laws. Laws tended to come after the change, or sometimes even before. Many towns had laws limiting gambling or drinking or prostitution which were ignored in boom eras. Nor was it law enforcement, often wild towns had more law officers than the calm settled towns.

      No, what stopped regular drunkenness, gambling, prostitution, crime and so on, or at least pushed them into the dark alleys if they remained, was a public attitude unwilling to accept them. In some cases, I grant, laws played some part here and there, but for the most part, laws lag behind public sentiment, and tend to clean up the outlying cases, it is public opinion which changes environments.

      (Another example of similar implications is the one I offered before of inner city open air drug markets. Many suburban neighborhoods have as many teens who want money, who use drugs and who have no moral objections to drug dealing, yet the drug corners seems to exist only in certain areas -- though to be fair, certain suburban areas also have drug markets, I know of one in Howard County, but they are for the same reason as the cities. And that reason is, some communities simply do not object strongly enough. When standards decline, or apathy allows anything, behaviors appear which do not in communities with stronger social controls. Which we can see also in those city neighborhoods which either never developed drug cultures or cleaned them up.)

    5. Last one, I promise. This same attitude is the truth behind the "zero tolerance" that helped clean up parts of New York. Arrests for petty crime did not stop larger crimes because the litter bugs and jay walkers were in jail. it worked because it eventually established an environment that said crime would not be allowed, and citizens picked up on that new ethic. Once they too began to refuse to accept petty crimes, the larger crimes began to diminish as well. It was much more social pressure than the enforcement of laws against misdemeanors that helped stop crime.

    6. Well, one more. I can make my case with one more example. Why do we worry so much about the influence of the far left on universities and popular culture? It gives them no legal powers. But it does let them set a social agenda, establish those pressures I have described. And we can see how much influence that has given them. Just recall, Will and Grace was considered daring in the 90's, today we have arguments about legal gay marriages. If you ever doubt the power of social pressures, consider that. The law is powerful, being able to threaten death or confiscation, but social pressures are every bit as powerful without having to threaten anything so dramatic.

      And I would argue that because they are so powerful, they can easily control any number of behaviors. Of course, it depends upon the environment and the beliefs of the society, but on the other hand, are not free societies supposed to be controlled by such beliefs? And leave individuals free to challenge them as well? And that is why I believe so many matters should be left outside of the law. If an individual believes differently, he should be allowed to do as he wishes, if he is willing to suffer ostracism. On the other hand, for most, the pressures put on him by society will control most behaviors.

      Only in the case of violating the rights of another do we need to invoke the law, as that is the purpose of the state.

  2. I don’t think you’re a looney at all, Andrew. Stubborn, perhaps, but not looney. Every libertarian I’ve encountered in the blogosphere makes what I believe to be the same mistake, which is that they think they’ve discovered something no one else has ever considered and if they could just open people’s eyes people will see the error of their ways. Most communities begin in the state of libertarianism that you advocate. As they grow and as the nature of people asserts itself, they consistently move to an expanded system of laws. That’s not much different than what occurs in households, businesses, or groups of any kind that find that the bigger they grow the more rules are needed to keep some semblance of order. The extent of the rules or laws depends on the nature of the population. A small retirement community may have few rules because people there are naturally inclined to be considerate of others. Compare that to a prison which probably has a large number of strict rules because its population has a history of lacking self-control. That’s why you can’t really compare today with the old west, IMO. As you point out, societal attitudes are quite different now than they were back then. There might be only one grocery store where you could shop or one church to attend so it was far easier to apply social pressure. We not only do not have that situation today but we also don’t have many of the shared values that people had back then. Properly enacted laws are the means by which peaceful societies remain just that – peaceful. Instead of people engaging in physical confrontations over their disagreements, laws allow those who prevail to have the weight of controlled force behind them.

    Now you may be thinking, ‘That CW is a really a progressive RINO and doesn’t even know it,’ so let me clarify my position. I believe in the Constitution, because every land is inevitably going to have some rule of law and I think the Constitution is a fair and reasonable one. The Constitution expressly binds itself and the federal gov’t from meddling in the powers of the states except for a small number of protections defined in the B.O.R. It is up to the people of those states, within that framework, to determine what laws they want and don’t want. That fits the reality of the way people manage themselves in societies and it is the ultimate form of limited gov’t because the ability of communities to make laws that help them function and maintain order is a fundamental freedom. I repeat: that is a fundamental freedom. When you come along and insist that people MUST tie their hands, that they MUST tolerate the impacts of recreational drug use, prostitution or other behaviors that they believe erode their societies, then you are being every bit as tyrannical as those you accuse.

    In my house we have certain unwritten rules that we follow in order to keep the peace. I don’t particularly like every rule but I accept it as the price of living in peace with my family. I view the rules of my community the same way. As long as my fundamental rights are not infringed upon and as long as I have an equal voice as everyone else I can accept the give and take of the laws that accompany life in a society. What I DON’T accept is the abuse of the Constitution and the infringement upon what I believe to be my fundamental rights that are supposed to be protected. That statement is why I think this debate comes down to how you define the “individual rights” you keep mentioning. I don’t believe that the founders fought a revolution to protect the right to get high or have easy access to porn. I don’t think that’s how they saw fundamental liberty. In any event it’s enough of a struggle to keep the federal gov’t in check, to prevent the confiscation of our property via federal taxes, to hold on to our right to self-defense and fight every other assault on liberty that’s happening at the federal level.