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.