23 February 2011

The State is Not an Argument

There are some who think that the state can reverse the course of leftism:

The amoral nature of capitalism undermines the sort of right liberalism that Ron Paul espouses (disclaimer: I am a big fan of Paul, but this is a blind spot of his).  Right-liberalism is by definition a variant of liberalism--it assumes that man is in his essence good or at least neutral, instead of incorrigibly evil. This fundamental assumption entices right-liberals (and libertarians) to discount the role that culture plays in maintaining a free society, apparently thinking that by being culturally laissez-faire, the capitalist marketplace is the best arbiter of socially productive and unproductive moral habits. All will work out in the end, magic-like, if only governments would get out of the way and let the markets decide for us. Or so the story goes.

So, to summarize the rest of the post, left-liberalism has completely undermined the culture (agreed), libertarianism can’t fix it (most likely true), and thus we need conservatism to take the reins and restore the culture.

But it simply doesn’t work like that.

As an example, consider the norm of income tax.  Every April 15th, people are expected to have a tax return submitted to the federal government, or else they will face very severe penalties.  Does anyone think that people will continue to voluntarily pay income taxes if they were to be abolished?  Of course not.  And here the government has imposed a top-down cultural norm (April 15th is a sort of anti-holiday in its own right), but unless the government continues to impose this norm, it will not remain.

The same can be noted of, say, traffic laws.  Do people obey the speed limit because they believe that the speed limit is optimal under the conditions?  Of course not.  Most speed limits and traffic laws are ignored by most people at some in their life.  People only obey the law when it corresponds with their desires, or when there is a serious threat of a ticket.  Again, people only follow the transportation norms because they are imposed by the government.  Were the government to stop imposing them, people would largely abandon them.

Furthermore, some social norms existed long before the state existed (prohibitions of murder, theft, e.g.), and these norms would have still existed outside of the state.  That the state recognizes these norms is utterly irrelevant, for the state is not needed to impose them because cultural norms are organic and widely held, by definition.

The reason why the state fails to permanently shift cultural norms is because the state is not an argument.  It cannot, in and of itself, convince people of the morality of the norms it wants to impose.  It can only state the norms and force them upon people.

In order for norms to take place, people must believe in them.  If the state repealed all laws against murder, it is unlikely that most people will start committing mass murder.  The murder rate may increase, but not everyone will be murderer, because most people will still believe that murder is wrong.  The same is true of any type of law:  There will always be those who will comply with a law even after it is repealed, and they will do so because they believe in the morality of that law, regardless of whether it is codified.

Ultimately, the way to restore cultural norms lies not in politicians, but in preachers.


  1. Thanks for the link. I tend to agree with what you write...that the State will ultimately fail as a tool to legislate morality because mere laws do not persuade one of the rectitude of an act.

    I'm trying to recall who said it first--it certainly wasn't me--but it is a truism that when the State feels the need to enforce morality, it is too late. The horses done escaped from the barn. Viz Prohibition, the war on drugs, etc.

    The problem I'm trying to think my way through is how to reset the people back to self-governing behavior in the absence of government force. I agree with you that the only durable way to do this is through preachers, not police. But our polyglot culture
    has too many of both; moreover, the vast majority of the preachers that do exist evangelize for religions that do not teach self-governance, namely liberal ones typified by secular humanism.

    Both factors confound constructing a coherent, cohesive, homogenous culture, and it is precisely a culture of this type that is absolutely essential to reconstructing the civic institutions necessary to assume some of the functions that government usurped over time.

    I hope that the State will not be the answer. But the historical record also shows that the State does have some success at shaping the morality of the people over time...popular attitudes toward race-conscious behavior in whites being a prime example.

  2. "popular attitudes toward race-conscious behavior in whites being a prime example."

    @Elusive Wapiti- I don't get your reference; please explain.

  3. I don't think the state is the answer but I'm not sold humans can live without it. I'm Christian Libertarian-ish, and while I believe true free marketism and voluntary peaceful anarchy would be the best (and there is good support for it) I just don't see it happening in a post-christian, relativistic, culturally diverse society.

    If you enact such a system but with a people who have diverse cultures, mores, ethics, and values, tribalism will just spring up and it will collapse. Freedom seems tied to wide spread inner discipline (this is how religion like Christianity is very helpful in a society), absolute mores and values, societal cohesion, and a homogeneous culture (as EW noted). Our current culture with its relative values and mores has caused a decrease in inner discipline among the populace because it enables and emboldens rationalization. This decrease has caused an outcry for external discipline (violent force of the state) to keep stability since personal responsibility is not PC. Thus the state grows and continues to grow and becomes the hammer for which every little group attempts to seize.

    That's the problem with freedom and liberty. Like power, having them comes with great responsibility. But what will suddenly make personal responsibility fashionable again? It's said that people change when either two things occur: they know enough or they hurt enough...and rarely do we ever know enough, let alone anything until hindsight.

    If you decrease external discipline (laws, rules) there are less protective barriers for our social behaviors. This increases an emphasis on social skills and generates inner discipline in our social behavior. Increase external discipline though and there is less and less incentive to cultivate inner discipline since you can outsource your behavior to external discipline, especially since the latter tends to absolve individuals of personal responsibility because it earns votes.

    So lets discard it, go into a voluntary anarchic state and word together. But if we discard it, how long before people clamour for it? 1 Samuel 8 comes to mind, as the Jews had the closest thing to a minarchy government when the decided they wanted a king. American western territories still joined the Union rather than resist joining and staying minarchic (although Texas joined because it could not afford its debt). In both cases you had generally uniform cultures with standardized agreed upon mores and ethics and each time the 'kings' were brought in.

    Of course, I'm not completely read on those who are smarter than me in this field. I still need to read some books by Hermann-Hoppe and others who attempt to defend a stateless society. That said, I am currently of the opinion that balanced bottom up system of our government would be better than the present top-down heavy one we have. Cities are different than sub-urbs and rural communes. New Yorkers are different than Alabamians, Calfornians, Vermonters, etc. We also need to ditch cultural relativism, white guilt, and laws that forgive bad behavior from suffering repercussions.

    Your post reminded me of two articles both you and EW might like to read.

    Butler Shaffer - "Anarchy in the Streets"

    Terry Anderson and PJ Hill - "The Not So Wild, Wild West"

  4. @Casaubon Belbo- very well stated. I personally desire to live in a stateless society. and I know that there are like-minded people. It's a pity we all can't move to some unclaimed island and set up shop there.

    But that is my ideal society. I am quite willing to accept minarchism, especially in light of how things are now. I would want strict limits on government, of course, but I think I could live quite happily with minimal taxes and regulatory interference.

    And you're right about national character being essential to social success. There is not a single method of governance that can succeed if citizens are immoral. Likewise, all forms governance are primed to succeed if citizens are highly moral. Given the scope of moral erosion in America, I do not think that there is much that can be done to save it, outside of telling everyone just how bad things are and the changes that must be made.

  5. "please explain. "

    Sorry didn't see this query until now.

    What I was getting at was how whites in the 40s and 50s were free to express their opinions on racial matters and their likes/dislikes wrt other racial and ethnic groups.

    Various left-wing groups embarked upon a mass society-wide campaign to extirpate that sort of behavior from the domain of socially acceptable conduct. This campaign was backed by government force.

    It is this campaign that I was referring to...as evidence that government is not absolutely toothless in shaping the culture.