Arnold Kling

Libertarians and Group Norms

Arnold Kling*
"Should individuals be subject to peer pressure or other forms of social influence in order to enforce group norms? My reading of the literature suggests that there is no consensus among libertarians on this issue."
When politicians and commentators appeal to group identity in order to support government action, those of us with a libertarian bent tend to resist. Our instinct is to scorn such appeals. When someone says that "government is the name we give to what we do together," I want to shout "Lose the 'we'!"

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.

Should individuals be subject to peer pressure or other forms of social influence in order to enforce group norms? My reading of the literature suggests that there is no consensus among libertarians on this issue. It poses a problem for libertarian thinking, because the maintenance of trust-building institutions that undergird free markets may depend on enforcement of group norms. Enforcement of group norms in turn may depend on irrational attachment to group identity. And one of the elements of group identity to which humans may be irrationally attached is the state.

Libertarian Thinking Concerning Social Pressure and Group Norms: A Sampling

I read Adam Smith as approving of social pressure. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote,

we either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, according as we feel that, when we place ourselves in the situation of another man, and view it, as it were, with his eyes and from his station, we either can or cannot entirely enter into and sympathize with the sentiments and motives which influenced it.1


For more on Adam Smith and the The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and specifically Part III, see the EconTalk podcast Klein on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Episode 4--A Discussion of Part III. See also the EconTalk podcast Otteson on Adam Smith.

In Smith's psychology, we imagine ourselves being regarded by others, and this imaginative exercise strongly influences our self-regard. Smith seems to me to suggest that this is good for mankind as a whole, because it encourages moral behavior.

Along these lines, there is a tradition within libertarian thought that champions the institutions of civil society as an alternative to statism. In a famous passage, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in chapter five of Democracy in America that

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.2

It is easy to read this as an endorsement of the ability of Americans to create groups and adhere to group norms. We can view voluntary associations as providing an alternative to state control and as a bulwark against tyranny.

I read John Stuart Mill as less supportive of social pressure. He seems to agree with Smith that our conduct is influenced by what we imagine others will think of us, but he sees this as stultifying. In On Liberty, Mill wrote,

But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences. Things are vastly changed, since the passions of those who were strong by station or by personal endowment were in a state of habitual rebellion against laws and ordinances, and required to be rigorously chained up to enable the persons within their reach to enjoy any particle of security. In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.3

Commenting on this chapter, Richard M. Ebeling wrote in 2001,

But while customs and traditions may hold such power over men, because of their fear of disgrace and ostracism by family, friends, and neighbors, they are still not coercion. No matter how strong a hold custom and tradition may have over men's minds and therefore their conduct in society, an individual can still choose to go his own way and be the eccentric and outcast, if he is willing to pay the price in terms of the disapproval of others in his community. Political force is not the weapon that ensures obedience. The power of custom and tradition comes from social and psychological pressure and the human desire to avoid being shunned by those whose association is wanted.4

Ebeling is not prepared to go along with Mill and term social pressure a threat to liberty. Ebeling maintains that there is an important distinction between threats to use force and the threat to withhold approval.

I interpret Ayn Rand as sharing Mill's concerns with social pressure. In "Introducing Objectivism," she wrote,

Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.5

Rand takes the view that people should arrive at their moral decisions on the basis of objective reasoning rather than on the basis of a desire to please others. She wrote,

Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.6


For more on Friedrich A. Hayek, see the EconTalk podcast Caldwell on Hayek.

I interpret Friedrich Hayek as doubting the ability of individuals to make correct moral decisions in such a Randian fashion, without taking into account prevailing social customs. In Hayek's view, social norms are not the product of one person's design; rather, they are the outcome of an evolutionary process. In The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, published in 1988, Hayek wrote,

it must be remembered that why men should ever have any particular new custom or innovation is of secondary importance. What is more important is that in order for a custom or innovation to be preserved, there were two different prerequisites. Firstly, there must have existed some conditions that made possible the preservation through generations of certain practices whose benefits were not necessarily understood or appreciated. Secondly, there must have been the acquisition of distinct advantages by those groups that kept such customs, thereby enabling them to expand more rapidly than others and ultimately to supersede (or absorb) those not possessing similar customs. (p. 43)

Social norms, like the market, embody knowledge that is beyond the capability of any one individual to possess. I believe that for Hayek, trying to arrive at moral decisions solely on the basis of objective reasoning would be as futile a project as attempting to centrally plan an economy. Either project discards too much useful information to be successful.

Modern Psychology on Group Norms

I believe that modern research offers support for the views of Smith and Hayek on the nature of human psychology. For example, Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, says that we have evolved to care about our status within groups. An important way to achieve status within a group is to adhere to and defend its norms.

One view is that systems of social norms are a necessary ingredient in human progress. For example, Haidt writes,

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

Similarly, Bruce Schneier, in Liars and Outliers, notes that in complex modern societies, there are numerous opportunities for individuals to steal from or take advantage of others. He argues that in order for people to obey rules, we need social pressure, reputation systems, formal rules, and technology.

For example, the red light at an intersection is a technological device. It is backed by formal rules of enforcement. However, for the most part, people stop at red lights because they believe that they ought to do so. As Adam Smith would have put it, when I approach a red light, I imagine myself in another car observing my behavior, and I stop at the light in order to keep the observer's approval.

The emergence of group norms is not necessarily consistent with a game-theoretic view that assumes rational human nature. The problem is that the individual has no incentive to bear the cost of adhering to group norms or of taking enforcement action when someone else violates group norms.

It appears that group norms are most effective when individuals feel strong emotional attachment to a group. This makes them willing to bear the extra cost of adhering to and enforcing group norms. Haidt cites research by Richard Sosis which found that religious communes tended to survive longer than secular communes. Haidt writes,

It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders... Why doesn't sacrifice strengthen secular communes? Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized... when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis... Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally, particularly when those beliefs rest upon the Sanctity foundation.

Haidt concludes,

Asking people to give up all forms of sacralized belonging and live in a world of purely "rational" beliefs might be like asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon.

If this is correct, then Rand's ideal of rational, objective moral behavior is not grounded in a realistic appreciation of human psychology.

Group Norms, Tribes, and States

Haidt and other modern psychologists see a link between the power of group norms and tribal loyalty. The evolutionary story that they tell is one in which people who were unable to formulate or adhere to group norms were defeated by tribes that were able to mobilize group loyalty. On the other hand, people who were too selfless in their tribal context were exploited by fellow tribe members, so that they could not survive, either. Thus, the humans that survived combined the ability to defend their self interest with an instinct to become emotionally attached to their tribal community.

We have been shaped by evolution to respond to the pull of tribal loyalty. Leaders constantly try to exploit that response. We can see this in the way that universities appeal to alumni for contributions. We can see it in the way product advertisements attempt to convey that purchasing a product can solidify the consumer's membership in some important group or club. We can see it in the way that politicians and pundits exalt public schools, military service, and the "duty to vote."

For libertarians, the fact that many people offer their tribal loyalty to the state is troubling. Daniel Klein, in an essay "The People's Romance," (TPR) writes,

If government intervention creates an official and common frame of reference, a set of cultural focal points, a sense of togetherness and common experience, then almost any form of government intervention can help to "make us Americans."

...TPR and libertarian policy goals are fundamentally at odds.

...TPR is simply something to lament and to try to deflate. Even where it might take harmless or possibly even vaguely libertarian forms, the danger exists that it will be hijacked for purposes that arouse and feed its coercive appetites. Decent, enlightened people must relinquish TPR.

In his conclusion, Klein takes an optimistic, "history is on our side" tone.

I believe that technological developments in communications and transportation have diminished the power of TPR, and I expect that trend to continue. We do not belong to a single well-defined group, but rather, increasingly, to many loosely defined groups, and those groups are increasingly of our own choosing. The structures we experience are less organizational and more networked and spontaneous.

We may look forward to diverse political cultures that accommodate vibrant communities of the mind wise to the statist quackeries and misadventures that surround us.7

The phrase "many loosely defined groups" recalls Tocqueville on associations, cited earlier. Indeed, I believe that libertarians are on much stronger ground if they support a Tocquevillian ideal of voluntary associations rather than a Randian ideal of individuals living under an objective moral code.

However, we live in a world that demands enormous levels of trust among strangers. We want to be able to use credit cards in remote villages in underdeveloped countries, to be able to buy and sell used goods on eBay, to hire contractors and service workers on Craigslist, and so on. We could not live the way we do if our trust circles were limited to something like a Dunbar number (the 150 or so people we can know well enough personally).

I doubt that anyone fully comprehends what holds this fabric of trust together. It is conceivable that widespread romantic beliefs about the state are an important component, without which this fabric would unravel.

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.


Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Paragraph III.I.2. Library of Economics and Liberty.


Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions. Vol. 3. Chapter: chapter 5 a: Of the Use That Americans Make of Association in Civil Life. Online Library of Liberty.


Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, Paragraph III.6. Library of Economics and Liberty.


Richard M. Ebeling, "John Stuart Mill and the Three Dangers to Liberty," The Future of Freedom Foundation, June 2001.


Rand, Ayn. "Introducing Objectivism". Ayn Rand Institute.




Daniel B. Klein, "The People's Romance: Why People Love Government (as Much as They Do)". The Independent Review, Summer 2005. PDF file.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of five books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; and Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.
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