Many times I have trouble convincing even conservatives that government really should be kept strictly to the functions I say are its proper role, that it should only protect against force, theft and fraud. The usual objection is something akin to "so you want to let people walk around naked?" or "so people can have sex in public?" or "so you don't mind prostitution and drugs?" and so on. Whenever I point out that those things, if society truly objects to them, are properly controlled by social pressures, and not by legal penalties, people look at me as if I were mad. but I would argue, and will try to demonstrate here, that social pressures are very powerful, more powerful than most imagine. The only reason we fail to notice them is that they are often so subtle, we don't realize they are at work.
For example, why is crime more common in one neighborhood and not another? Or why is drug use a problem one place and not another? To avoid the usual Marxist/liberal argument, we can even ask, why are neighborhoods with the same economic makeup, or the same racial makeup, often so different in terms of crime or drugs? The difference, though we cannot see it, is that some neighborhoods have accepted crime and drugs, while others still look down upon them.
Let us look ta history. Why, in the past, were there times when punishment was much more lenient, yet crime less common? Or the reverse, when punishment was more stringent, yet crime more common? Why did divorce become so much more prevalent? Why does alcoholism differ so much between various social groups? Why is the same true of drug abuse? Crime? Why do some groups marry for life while others never marry, or marry and divorce? Why does chronic unemployment so often follow cultural lines more than economic? In short, why do so many behaviors seem to be treated in some groups as if there were a law forbidding them, while in other groups they are accepted?
The difference is the social pressures faced in each group. When divorce was seen as shameful, even though legal, it was much less common. I grant, there have been other reasons for the upswing in divorce, but one significant difference was the change in society. Once we accepted divorce as an approved behavior, many of the incentives to avoid it disappeared.
The same is true of crime. Granted, longer, harsher sentences do have an effect. If nothing else, someone in jail can't be out and about committing crimes. But there were times when punishment was becoming less harsh and yet crime continued to drop. So punishment is not the whole of the story. After all, in a given county, for example, Baltimore County, punishment is relatively uniform, yet there are regions where crime is a daily occurrence, and others where it is almost never seen. What could be the cause? It is not punishment. Given that some groups have economic profiles almost identical, yet show drastic differences in crime, it cannot be money. So, what is the cause? It is the attitude of various groups toward crime.
I could go on and on, but let us start with some simple proof.
Why don't you eat with your hands? Why don't you belch and fart in public? Why do you wear clothing? No, even if it is illegal to walk around naked, you could walk around in undies and socks, so why do you wear what you do? Why don't men wear dresses? Why do some men NOW wear dresses when before none would? Why do you shave? Or not shave? Why do you bathe regularly? Why do you not pick your nose? So many things we do are controlled, invisibly, by social expectations. There are no laws, we don't think about it, but we follow these unwritten rules anyway because we know to do otherwise is to incur scorn. And that shunning by society at large exerts a tremendous pressure on us, even if we do not consciously recognize it.
As I asked before, why are there no suburban open air drug markets? Is it because no suburban kids buy drugs? None want extra money? Why, if we learned anything, Columbine showed us there are even a fair number of suburban kids willing to kill and die for no reason at all. No, the difference is that some communities will not tolerate the markets, and their lack of acceptance does convince enough to not do it. Maybe one or two are immune to pressure, but without a critical mass -- and that is what social pressure stops -- the market never forms.
I admit, social pressure has limits. There are those who don't care about how others view them. Then again, there are those who don't mind breaking the law. No system will stop all problems. After all, prostitution is illegal, as are drugs, does that stop them? So why does social pressure have to be perfect for it to be considered?
Having written on this before ("Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "Another Look At Exploitation", "There Are Other Solutions", "The Consequences of Bad Laws" "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Humility and Freedom", "Costs and Benefits", "An Unusual Proof") I am reluctant to tread again over the same ground, so let me just leave it at this. The law is force, the threat of injury, expropriation or death. It should only be sued to correct actions which result directly in injury, expropriation or death. Anything else needs to be addressed by persuasion, be it individual or societal. To do otherwise is to try to use the government to force one belief upon all, and that is contrary to the fundamental value we place upon liberty. The state exists to protect rights, nothing more. Anything else, then it is up to you and others to persuade others.