David R. Henderson  

Arnold Kling on "Libertarians and Group Norms"

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Still, I think it is unwise to dismiss altogether the case for group loyalty and adherence to group norms. My inclination is to approve of organizations that promote group objectives and attempt to limit individual choices, as long as participation in these organizations is voluntary. However, within libertarian thought, there are very different points of view as to whether or not the pressure to conform to group norms is morally justified.
This is from Arnold Kling's new essay, "Libertarians and Group Norms."

In this excellent essay, Arnold considers the various ways that classical liberals from Adam Smith on have thought about group norms and social pressure. The whole thing is worth reading.

Arnold quotes my favorite passage from Tocqueville. [I should add that maybe it's my favorite only because I've never been able to get through Tocqueville's whole book and I've tried three times. I'm not saying that this is Tocqueville's fault. It could well be mine.] Anyway, here's the quote:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, [intellectual,] serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones; Americans associate to celebrate holidays, establish seminaries, build inns, erect churches, distribute books, send missionaries to the Antipodes; in this way they create hospitals, prisons, schools. If, finally, it is a matter of bringing truth to light or of developing a sentiment with the support of a good example, they associate. Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.

The differences between Canada, where I grew up, and the United States, to which I moved at age 21, are subtle, but I noticed this American tendency to form voluntary organizations quickly when I moved here.

Some further highlights:

My conclusion is not that libertarians should give up our idea of what constitutes good social philosophy. I am not saying that we should repent and henceforth worship at the altar of the state.

What I am saying is that we should not become wedded to the view that the world we want is one in which irrational group attachments have been completely eradicated from the human psyche. Yes, this capacity for group attachment is manifest in state-worship that we find troubling. But group norms are a fundamental component of human nature. We probably owe a debt of gratitude to the part of human behavior that becomes irrationally attached to groups and to group norm enforcement.

It may be that the role of libertarians is to point out that political demagogues are exploiting the tribal loyalty instincts of citizens against their better interests, as is typically the case. But it may be neither realistic nor desirable to "educate" people in order that they should lose all sense of group attachment, including attachment to the state.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Greg G writes:

A constitutional democracy complete with a social safety net, and a lot more government than libertarians like, just happens to be the "group" that the largest number of people want to voluntarily join.

That is why so many people immigrate to this country. Those who want a different choice are free to emigrate from this country.

MikeP writes:

A free society with respect for rights and a healthy understanding of commerce and industry just happens to be the place where the largest number of people want to voluntarily be.

The fact that the US government claims the territory that society occupies without outright crushing it does not make the US government a voluntary group.

Thucydides writes:

Kling's article, in keeping with libertarian philosophy, views particular identities (or "group affiliations") as consisting largely of voluntary lifestyle choices, and approves of them on the basis of their optionality. In fact, we are born into many of our identities, whether national, ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, cultural, etc. These are more like fates than choices, and they are intractable. This is a fact usually ignored or suppressed by the strong human universality of modern liberalism, which sees men in all times and places as essentially the same.

Greg G writes:

Mike, the thing that makes a "group norm" a group norm is not unanimity. It is the fact that people voluntarily agree to compromise on some of their individual preferences because they think the costs of compromise are worth the benefits of membership. The question is, do they make that choice freely or do they have no other choice?

I am aware that some people in this country do not view themselves as being voluntarily under the authority of its government. I am claiming that those of us who do view that as our voluntary choice comprise the largest voluntary group. Let's not forget that while we are celebrating voluntary groups.

I am a member of many voluntary groups. There are some things about the group norms of all of them that I would like to be able to change.

caltrek writes:

Often overlooked by liberal and libertarian economists alike are non-profit organizations. To risk boring folks with the obvious, these are organizations that are neither governmental, nor formed for the purpose of making a profit. They are voluntary forms of organization that do not necessarily rely on taxes to do social good. They can compensate for the short comings of the marketplace, with out the default of relying on government support.

Alexander de Toqueville has always been a bit of a hero of mine because of his understanding of the American proclivity for free association in order to achieve desired objectives. There is much to be said about such a voluntaristic approach.

C Foz writes:

Thucydides: While it is true that people are born into many groups, I'd argue the most meaningful groups are selected into. You can be born into a churh, but leave later if it is unsatisfactory, or stay if it pleases you. A family can identify itself strongly as culturally Italian, but no individual is forced to identify that way. Greg G is right. People weigh the costs and benefits of being in a group. If it is too costly to associate, they leave. You are not entirely wrong. Race is an identity that cannot be escaped, but your point is not as strong as I think you let on.

I think group identity is important, but it IS desirable to encourage people to lose attachment from the state. Group formations should arise organically. Attachment to the state has an extremely high cost of exit, and is not desirable.

John David Galt writes:

The lesson I learn here is that social organizations work well, and can and should be used as solutions to some of the problems overgrown government creates.

I've often thought libertarians (or at least the non-religious ones like myself) should form an institution that serves the purposes churches traditionally did, from finding like-minded people to associate with to providing good moral education (based on non-initiation of force) to the young, and possibly a whole social space in which using (or cooperating with) the police or other government services can be made mostly unnecessary. This group would not worship anything (except perhaps "the principle"), but might be able to enjoy the tax status of a religion since it would perform the major functions of one. Obviously any such group would need to be much more "big tent" than any of the major existing libertarian clubs are today.

@Greg G: People who migrate to this country do so for a multitude of reasons. Most of those who want to sponge off a "social safety net" have better alternatives than the US, though not always the means to get there.

As for most immigrants wanting "a lot more government than libertarians like" I doubt it very much. There are plenty of people would have government do a few more things than would libertarians (where different individuals would pick different things to add), but by far, most expansions of government are bought and paid for by special interest lobbyists as a result of the incentive traps David Friedman discusses in "The Machinery of Freedom." Polls consistently show that most people favor a much smaller overall government than we have. But getting there, if it can be done at all, will take not only constitutional change, but constitutional change designed by economists so that it eliminates the incentive traps.

Greg G writes:

@JDG
I am all for people voluntarily joining groups that reduce the need for a government social safety net. I belong to a couple such organizations myself.

Even so, I am glad there is a government backed safety net for those who need it. I believe that most (but certainly not all) immigrants feel the same way.

I do not assume, as you seem to, that main reason someone would favor a government social safety net is that they desire to "sponge off" of it. Right or wrong, most people who favor it think it is good policy and hope not to be "spongers."

Ted Levy writes:

Greg G: "I do not assume, as you seem to, that main reason someone would favor a government social safety net is that they desire to "sponge off" of it. Right or wrong, most people who favor it think it is good policy and hope not to be "spongers."

I think the object for many is not to "sponge off it" personally. It is to have the taxpayers as a whole (of which the advocate is one) take the responsibility, so that the individual in question is relieved of taking responsibility himself for helping others.

That's why studies show Democrats don't give as much to charity as Republicans: Hey, I pay taxes so the government can take care of that.

That's why so many professionals are happy with Medicare and Social Security. "Hey, if not for these programs, I'd have to take care of my aging parents directly!"

That's why our society is becoming more bureaucratized and atomized, why the nexus of people's lives becomes more stunted. Much more is lost than economic efficiency when the government takes over helping the poor.

Phaerisee writes:

Well written.

A third or even multiple parties is a great idea to stop the entrenched interests that have us in trouble, Democrat and Republican.

philemon writes:

@Greg G: People who migrate to America before the rise of the modern welfare state--and you had to grant that there were a lot of them--couldn't have done so because of any perceived "social safety net" offered by Mr Sam. In any case, governmental policies could either be attractive or unattractive to prospective immigrants without ever getting into the territory of offering a better social net, or better group identity, etc. --they could offer more religious and civil freedom, better protection of private property and rule of law which conduce to better economic prospects, and so on. In fact, the historical experience of the US would suggest that the group membership thing--especially where the relevant group is this thing called the "US of A"--came much later. (Similar stories could be told of, e.g., the Chinese who migrated to British or Dutch controlled South-east Asia in the 18-19th century, or the migration to Australia in the same time period.)

Greg G writes:

@ Ted Levy
I think that the desire of most voters to collectivize risk through programs like Social Security and Medicare is similar to the desire of people to collectivize risk by purchasing fire insurance and life insurance. (Yes, I know the first two are mandatory and the last two are voluntary) It does not necessarily stem from a desire to avoid personal responsibility for helping others. It stems from the realization that bad luck can overwhelm the ability of any one individual or family to cope with a worst case scenario. And a desire not to have to rely on charity.

@ philemon
Of course I did not claim, and do not believe, that immigrants who came here before there was a modern welfare state came here because of the modern welfare state. And yes I do grant that there were a lot of them. I don't really understand how that is relevant to my point about the net positive inflow now.

I agree that there are many more reasons for people to come here than just the modern welfare state. Even so, the modern welfare state as it exists here is politically very popular. I have not seen any data that would indicate it is less popular with immigrants than other people.

Linguistic Aryan (from France) writes:

On a side note's side note,
1) it's Alexis de ToCqueville
2) In French, as well as in proper English (or so my OED tells me), the "de" particle is omitted unless you use one of the following forms:
- Monsieur de Tocqueville,
- Alexis de Tocqueville
- le comte de Tocqueville (doesn't apply, he wasn't a Count or a nobleman, but it's an example).
So you should write "this is Tocqueville's fault", "Tocqueville's book", and so on.

Thanks for a very lively and interesting blog.

philemon writes:

@greg

I agree that there are many more reasons for people to come here than just the modern welfare state. Even so, the modern welfare state as it exists here is politically very popular. I have not seen any data that would indicate it is less popular with immigrants than other people.

Exactly--there are many many reasons for migration, both historically, and after the rise of the modern welfare state. That people do flock to generous welfare states is compatible with the thesis that they are there because of the modern welfare state. But do we really know how much of the migration is this one factor responsible for? If all you are claiming is that it surely has some explanatory weight, I would agree (sure, why not). But if you meant to say that it is the only or even main motivation, some positive evidence would be nice--especially given that historically, there had already been lots of immigration to the US before the rise of the modern welfare state. And you do need to say something in this region if your claim that "that is why so many people immigrate to this country" is not meant to be vacuous.

(I don't have data--and would be happy to hear from someone who actually has such data--but right now, if I have to make a bet on why so many people immigrate to the US, my money is going to be mostly in "greater economic opportunity" as the most significant factor. And this is entirely compatible with the migrants and their descendants coming to love the greater civil liberties available in the new country, their appreciation of the safety net provided by the welfare state, well, the rhetoric of it anyway.)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Linguistic Aryan (from France),
Thanks for those corrections. Changes made.

Greg G writes:

@ philemon
What I am saying is, as the original post points out, when you make a voluntary choice to become, or remain, part of a group what you get is a package deal on the group norms - not a line item veto.

And substantially more people like that package with a government social safety net than without. Those that find this oppressive have other countries to pick from.

Libertarians love to point out to critics of market results that they can choose not to do business with companies they don't like. That tactic cuts both ways. I am pointing out to libertarians that they can choose to live in other countries. In both cases there is no guarantee anyone is satisfied with the menu of choices they are offered.

Tracy W writes:

Thucylides:

In fact, we are born into many of our identities, whether national, ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, cultural, etc. These are more like fates than choices, and they are intractable.

Obivously, one's racial group is intractable. And it's currently often very costly to change one's linguistic or national group, though Arnold Kling is in favour of it being much easier to immigrate. But how intractable are the other groups you mention? People's religions and cultures do change, as do people's ethnic understanding of themselves (eg, are you half-Maori, or Maori, or Polynesian, or a Kiwi?). Feminism for example changed the cultural identities of women sharply. Most religions are open to converts, and libertarians favour religious freedom (Judaism is a famous exception, but even so there are converted Jews). In terms of more moderate cultural identies, the social-climber is a common stereotype, as is the student on the first visit back from university who has changed their hair, dress, attitudes, etc.
Your "fact" does not seem to be empirically supported for most of your stated groups.

philemon writes:

@greg

I now see that there are two ways to read what you are saying.

You could be saying that as a matter of fact about how people choose to join or leave a group, what they (usually) get is a package deal on the group norms. That is, suppose one wants to migrate out of the old country. One's choice is the USA, Australia, some other country. USA-but-minus-this-or-that-law-plus-this-or-that-bit-of-Australia is not on the menu. Ok. But precisely because I grant this point that I also find it hard to disentangle one particular part of that package deal--the welfare state--as a decisive factor in explaining people's choices, prior to positive evidence. There are just too many other confounding factors.

You could also be making the more normative point that if one chooses to join a group with such and such group norms, or choose not to leave it, then one has to accept all of those norms. Otherwise, one should migrate. On the face of it, this seems false, especially when those group norms include provisions for peaceful change of the group norms themselves.

The bit about how "Libertarians love to point out to critics of market results that they can choose not to do business with companies they don't like" puzzles me. Someone more knowledgeable please correct me but doesn't the libertarians' point turn precisely on the claim that exit as an option is much easier to exercise exactly when there is a market? And much harder or more costly in the absence of a market? If one does not like the restrictive policies ('norms', let's say) of an Apple, one really has a choice--refuse to buy into their ecosystem, stick to Android, Windows Phone, what not. One does not have to make the costly decision to migrate just so as not to have to deal with them, for the most part anyway. If one does not like an existing law or group norm of the very group one is part of--that's much tougher.

David R. Henderson writes:

@philemon,
You could be saying that as a matter of fact about how people choose to join or leave a group, what they (usually) get is a package deal on the group norms. That is, suppose one wants to migrate out of the old country. One's choice is the USA, Australia, some other country. USA-but-minus-this-or-that-law-plus-this-or-that-bit-of-Australia is not on the menu. Ok. But precisely because I grant this point that I also find it hard to disentangle one particular part of that package deal--the welfare state--as a decisive factor in explaining people's choices, prior to positive evidence. There are just too many other confounding factors.
Well put.
Someone more knowledgeable please correct me but doesn't the libertarians' point turn precisely on the claim that exit as an option is much easier to exercise exactly when there is a market?
Well put, also. but a small correction: it isn’t “precisely” that exit is much easier, which it is. The more fundamental point is that there is the initiation of force in one case and not the other.

Greg G writes:

@ philemon
I don't think it is nearly as hard as you do to get a sense of immigrant group norms on entitlement programs. We are in the middle of a Presidential campaign with massive amounts of polling being done in an election that is rapidly becoming a referendum on entitlement spending.

Compare opinions in the group with the most recent immigrants (young Hispanics) with the group with the fewest immigrants (older whites). The differences are enormous. Of course there are other complicating issues and immigration is a big one. Even so, I don't think this is nearly as much of a big mystery as you make it out to be.

@ David
I am aware that libertarians consider the initiation of force to be an overriding moral issue. But they still usually expect the government to be willing to initiate the use of force to enforce contracts and if they didn't we wouldn't have the kind of economic success that helps attract immigrants in the first place.

Both sides think they have the high moral ground. Those on the left feel entitled to choices the market does not offer. Those in the libertarian camp feel entitled to governments the world does not offer. Most people in between regard the absence of options that are acceptable to them as being just as coercive as the absence of the freedom to break the law.

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