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.

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