How Government Subverts Social Norms

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Arnold Kling observes that

humans have a fundamental rule of social morality, which is: Reward cooperators; punish defectors. The use of this rule is what enables humans to work effectively with strangers, making possible sophisticated economies and civilizations….

Generally, a cooperator is someone who obeys social norms without requiring coercion. A defector is someone who takes advantage of others by disobeying social norms.

Along come “activists”: persons who seek to advance a particular cause or group of persons, usually without regard for the effects on social comity and often for the sheer pleasure of “sticking it to the man,” Obama-like. Through the use of courts and legislatures, these “activists” reshape legal norms — welfare as a right, capital punishment (for murder) as a wrong, abortion (murder) as a right, wealth accumulation as (somehow) anti-social, homosexual “marriage” as just another form of marriage, and on and on.

The vast, wishy-washy middle is easily influenced. Ensconced in the relative comfort of the nanny-welfare state, the middle too often acquiesces in the edicts of the state to which it (falsely) attributes its relative comfort. When the minions of the state speak, the wishy-washy middle listens.

The sole exception of which I am aware has been widespread resistance to legalized abortion, a movement that has found backing in the GOP-controlled legislatures of several States. Dislike of Obamacare, on the other hand, has resulted in only some minor victories for religious freedom, while public opinion slowly warms to the prospect of “free” medical care and more generous drug benefits.

The general wishy-washiness that greets governmental subversion of long-standing, civilizing norms is a symptom of the capitalist paradox: The successes of capitalism separate people from the lessons that served them well when life was more fraught and survival depended more heavily on social comity. (The idea that “social media” bonds mere acquaintances and total strangers is laughable.)

Britain is the model for social disintegration and the economic stagnation that accompanies it. A polite, hardworking, law-abiding “nation of shopkeepers” has been transformed into a nation of loud, dole-demanding, beer-swilling, rib-kicking yobs — male and female.

On the evidence of news reports and what passes for entertainment these days, the U.S. is following in Britain’s footsteps. And most of the blame belongs to the “activists” and elites who have worked so hard to subvert long-standing social norms.

Assuming a Pretzel-Like Shape

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Will Wilkinson — of whom I’ve written many times (e.g., here) — twists his brain into a pretzel-like shape while trying to reconcile libertarianism with what he calls neoclassical liberalism. In essence, Wilkinson and his ideological allies have concocted an after-the-fact justification for the past 80 years of governance in the United States. That is to say, they prefer a fascistic nanny state to a truly libertarian regime, but can’t bring themselves to admit it. So they concoct “libertarian” arguments for “positive liberty” and “social justice,” which necessarily require the state to shrink the zone of true liberty — negative liberty — until it vanishes.

My War on the Misuse of Probability

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In the preceding post I say that “the problem with history is that the future isn’t part of it.” That is subtle criticism of the too-frequent practice of attributing a probability to the occurrence of a future event — especially a unique event, such as a war here or a terrorist attack there.

A probability is a statement about a very large number of like events, each of which has an unpredictable (random) outcome. Probability, properly understood, says nothing about the outcome of an individual event. It certainly says nothing about what will happen next.

A fair coin comes up heads with a probability of 0.5, and comes up tails with the same probability. But those aren’t statements about the outcome of the next coin toss. No, they’re statements about the approximate frequencies of the occurrence of heads and tails in a large number of tosses. The next coin toss will eventuate in heads or tails, but not 0.5 heads and 0.5 tails (except in the rare and unpredictable case of a coin landing on edge and staying there).

There’s a vast gap between routine processes of the kind to which probabilities attach — coin tosses, for example — and the complexities of human activity. Human activity is too complex and dependent on intentions and willful actions to be characterized (properly) by statements about the probability of this or that action.

It is fatuous to say, for example, that a war on the scale of World War II is improbable because such a war has occurred only once in human history. By that reasoning, one could have said confidently in 1938 that a war on the scale of World War II could never occur because there had been no such war in human history.

(Inspired by Bryan Caplan’s fatuous post, “So Far.”)

The Old Normal

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The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Lahore might lead the impressionable to conclude that the world is falling apart. I submit that terrorist attacks shock because they occur against a backdrop of relative peacefulness. Yes, there are wars here and there, but they are mere skirmishes — albeit with tragic consequences for many — compared with what happened in the twentieth century.

From 1914 to 1973 — a span of two generations — World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the genocides presided over by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao produced casualties on a scale never attained before or since.  Despite subsequent events — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Gulf War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dozens of terror attacks, large and small in scale — the world today is more quiescent than it has been in more than a century.

But the problem with history is that the future isn’t part of it. It is fatuous to suggest, as some have, that the better angels of our nature have conquered violence on a twentieth-century scale. That was the prevailing view in Europe for several years before the outbreak of World War I.

Violence is in fact an essential, ineradicable component of human nature. There will always be armed conflict, and sometimes it will involve the forces of many nations. The proximate causes and timing of war are unpredictable. Conciliatory gestures can be just as provocative as saber-rattling; the former can be taken as as sign of weakness and unpreparedness, the latter as a sign of resolve and preparedness.

If history holds any lesson regarding war, it is this one: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This is a lesson that American leftists seem dead set on ignoring.

A Dose of Reality

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Gregory Cochran writes about “safe spaces”:

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that a lot of our present and future ‘elites’ would develop some valuable perspective from having someone beat the living crap out of them. Certainly worth a try.

Collegians’ demands for “safe spaces” and their refusals to brook alternative points of view are symptoms of a deeper problem. Some have called it the capitalist paradox. It is capitalism — really a regime of (relatively) free markets — not government, that has liberated most Americans (and most Westerners) from the Hobbesian fate of a poor, nasty, brutish, and short life. The most “liberated” are those who are the furthest removed from the realities of everyday life (such as being kicked in the ribs by yobs): collegians, ex-collegian academicians who propagandize collegians, ex-collegian teachers who propagandize public-school students, ex-collegian pundits and so-called journalists who have absorbed enough academic theorizing to have developed a distorted view of reality, and ex-collegian politicians and high-ranking bureaucrats who eagerly adopt pseudo-intellectual justifications for the various collectivist schemes that serve their power-lust.

This is a roundabout way of agreeing with Cochran. The functional equivalent of having someone beat the living crap out of cosseted elites, would be to slash appropriations for tax-funded universities, and especially for the so-called liberal arts. The possessors of soft minds and bodies would soon learn about real life, and be forced to live it alongside the proles whom they profess to love but actually disdain.

The currently fashionable notion of “free” college for everyone — well, fashionable on the anti-capitalist left — is exactly 180 degrees wrong. There are already far too many numbskulls (students and professors) on college campuses, as there were when I was a collegian almost 60 years ago. College isn’t for everyone; it’s for the brightest, or it should be.

“Cheerful” Thoughts

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Fred Reed ends a recent column with this:

America is no longer “one nation under God” (who is, I suppose, an undocumented alien). It is an unhappy land of warring tribes, of peoples who have nothing in common and do not like each other. Blacks, whites, browns, Syrians, Somalis, Southerners, Yankees, Christians, mostly detesting each other. The battle lines are drawn. The question is what kind of battle it will be.

I agree with Reed’s “warring tribes” characterization. But mutual detestation will not lead to combat. It will lead to an increasing fragmentation of America into mutually loathing identity groups.

And, as Trumpania makes clear, one result will be more government, not less. Whichever coalition of warring groups is in power, government will expand to fulfill the wishes of that coalition. And the ascension to power of different coalitions will simply lead to the further expansion of government, without any shrinkage of the functions added under previous coalitions.

As I have written elsewhere, the aggrandizement of government in the United States can be characterized by three metaphors: the slippery slope, the ratchet effect, and the death-spiral (of liberty). The Tea Party movement is effectively dead; the true lovers of liberty are a minuscule fraction of the electorate; the thought police are at the door; and with diminished defenses and expanded welfare programs, America is a hair’s-breadth from an economically stagnant, morally bankrupt European-style “social democracy.”

The next administration — or the next one, at most — will finish the job of fundamentally transforming America. Barack Obama certainly did his part, but the transformation has been a long time in the making. And it seems irreversible.