Cosmos and Taxis and Sexual Iconoclasm

Pamela Stubbart authored a piece this past week explaining her decision to leave the Students For Liberty-affiliated media relations firm Young Voices, noting her disappointment with the quality of pieces coming from Young Voices and the decision to bring Miriam Weeks — a.k.a. the “Duke Porn Star” — on as a contributor (“advocate”). Many of the responses, both critical and positive, focus on the validity of Stubbart’s professional or moral concerns with being associated with a sex worker. Other reactions focused on Stubbart’s decision to call out a certain level of marketing-driven vapidness present in some articles, supposedly motivated by a long and sophisticated intellectual tradition.

I think these points miss a deeper and more problematic strain of thought present in recent libertarian discussion, that of radical iconoclasm, identified by Stubbart. Libertarianism may indeed seem, at initial thought, to be an iconoclastic philosophy. In one way, it is iconoclastic when it comes to many formal institutions (e.g., the state). Political iconoclasm, which seeks to tear down oppressive formal institutions, results in a setting with fewer barriers for a multitude of alternative institutions to arise. These alternative institutions may be economic (e.g., contracts) or social (e.g., norms and social expectations).

The problematic strain of iconoclasm is concerned with tearing down these informal institutions and ushering in a new set of institutions deemed appropriate, moral, and progressive compared to the former set. Many of the norms deemed undesirable may be limiting or unfree, and it may appear at first glance to be the duty of any freedom-loving libertarian to strive for the destruction of these norms and to replace them with new norms.

Stubbart alludes to how this desire can be premature, and one that may actually hinder the proliferation of a freer society, using the example of the sexual revolution:

though many of the changes ushered in by the “sexual revolution” are right and good, it’s so new that the dust is only beginning to settle on whether we overshot the all-things-considered optimal set of sexual norms, and what implications that will have. Notice in the abstract, though, that when there are (rightfully) fewer laws constraining sex, we need more informally-enforced social norms to guide people in this important domain of life, not fewer.

The iconoclast will view this as a conservative stance — one which desires to maintain informal institutions for the sake of tradition. Iconoclasts take the stance that “institutions are too important not to challenge, update and innovate regularly.”

I maintain that a skepticism towards this iconoclasm is not conservatism, but rather Hayekianism. It is not that these institutions are unimportant or that they should not change over time, but rather that it is not our place to tear down existing norms, and to attempt as much assumes far too much knowledge on our part and leads down a dangerous road.

There are at least two problems for this desire to consciously “challenge, update and innovate” informal institutions. The first is a general problem with the limits of human knowledge and understanding. The second is a problem particular to the libertarian.

The first problem was identified by FA Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty when he warned against “constructivist rationalism.” Hayek is concerned with the line of thought which leads the central planner to the belief that the world is manageable if only they possessed “complete knowledge of all the relevant facts” (12). At the same time, he identifies certain rules which govern human action, and which are “the institutions of society which are indispensable conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims,” which “are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor observed with any such purpose in view” (11, emphasis mine). These are these very same norms and expectations.

These institutions are by their very nature undesignable, as the very minds which desire to influence them are consequences of them. The mind which hopes to change norms and expectations is one which grows up in a culture of them — likely one of cultural heritage which is relatively constant. Additionally, as a consequence of many years of minds working towards their own ends, these norms are spontaneously ordered, containing within them the knowledge of all these disassociated minds over many years.

There is a plethora of knowledge wrapped up in these institutions — more knowledge than any one person could possibly gather. We do not know, and cannot possibly know, to what ends this knowledge is aimed or in what it consists.

Since these institutions are the results of spontaneous orders, we cannot possibly know what the alternatives could be. Even with undesirable social institutions, it may very well be possible that they are the best of all possible alternatives. To tear down a seemingly oppressive institution may only result in a more oppressive alternative taking its place (such as a formal institution like the state).

This is not to say that norms and expectations don’t change over time. These institutions change by the slow process of the ends of the persons within the social order changing. As these ends change, the institutions most conducive to flourishing change. The attempt to take control of these changing institutions may push them too far outside the range conducive to flourishing, and may result in a disruption of the social order.

The changing of social norms and expectations is a slow and arduous process whose hand cannot be actively designed. The general discussion can be moved in one direction or another, but to assume the details of the norm can be changed is to assume far too much. The attempt to design or innovate a norm is to entirely misunderstand the very nature of norms, how they arise, and to what ends they aim. There is a difference between allowing competing systems of norms and blowing up old norms.

The second problem with this desire to change norms is one which poses a particular challenge to libertarians. As society becomes freer from the chains of formal institutions, social norms and expectations become even more important at enforcing social order. Expectations that certain behaviors are looked down upon and that certain behaviors are lauded become more important at guiding individual decisions in a freer society and take the place of state-enforced (dis)incentives. We should be cautious of attempts to design new norms, and should only slowly test out new versions, rather than seek to destroy the old.

The radical libertarian cannot be a social iconoclast. They must be prepared to accept the fact that they cannot consciously design the norms which arise in a politically free society. Norms arise like goods in a marketplace. Just as in the market, persons can participate in the attempted creation of the overall direction of the norm, but as in markets, you only win if you create active value for people. Destroying a current product and offering one with less value is not a way forward. To destroy the old product for the sake of it being an old product is to misunderstand adding value in the market. To destroy an old norm for the sake of it being an old norm is to misunderstand the way in which norms are created. A freer society is one which looks even more strongly to norms and expectations for governance, and to look to do away with these is to fundamentally misunderstand self-governance.

Peter Leeson outlines this problem in “Human Sacrifice,” noting that colonial attempts to stop the practice failed. In the few instances where the actual act of sacrifice ceased to exist, a new norm cropped up in its place and was worse than the sacrificial norms. Only upon realizing that sacrifice played a broader social purpose — being a violence-reduction mechanism — were they able to set up the incentives necessary to shift the informal institutions. Simply destroying a norm — even a seemingly bad or inhumane one — is neither sufficient for progress or ensuring a better outcome.

The Hayekian does not view norms as “permanent or unalterable” or “innate,” but rather as institutions which arise through a cultural heritage, which play an active role in some facet of society, and which human minds cannot possibly attempt to construct. This doesn’t mean these norms are necessarily good or ideal, but that any desire to actively change (or even fully understand!) them should be approached with strong skepticism. We are not slaves to culture, but we are also not its planners.

Cosmos and Taxis and Sexual Iconoclasm

9 thoughts on “Cosmos and Taxis and Sexual Iconoclasm

  1. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the post. I think I would disagree with your claim: “These institutions are by their very nature undesignable, as the very minds which desire to influence them are consequences of them”

    First, it’s not an inherent characteristic that you cannot design things that have shaped you. Second, while I buy the argument that it’s hard to design many institutions, perhaps pragmatically impossible, if you understand the proper goals, as well as the true function of an institution, you should be able to at least evaluate how the mechanism functions in achieving the goal, even if an individual couldn’t improve it.

    However, I’m unaware of any proof that a human couldn’t improve it. Moreover, if I assume the existence of God, then God could improve such an institution. If such an improvement is possible, it could potentially be accessed by humans, either through infinite attempts, reason, or divine revelation. Therefore, I tend to be a pretty iconoclastic libertarian, Hayek to the contrary.

  2. Jason Byas says:

    Zak,

    I think the main problem I have with your thoughts here is the same one that I have with most attempts to use Hayekian arguments for opposing revolutionary, iconoclastic, or radical attitudes in social activism. Which is that while your argument remembers that spontaneous orders are not products “of human design,” it forgets that they /are/ still products “of human action.” Revolutionary, iconoclastic and radical attitudes are only problematic when they’re accompanied by top-down or totalizing methods. Furthermore, little if any social change is likely to actually happen without people having the courage to act on those attitudes.

    The same is true of markets. Prices don’t come out of nowhere, they emerge from entrepreneurship, with producers constantly attempting to “challenge, update and innovate” goods and services purchased by consumers. Hayek’s quip that the point isn’t to get rid of planning, but to increase the number of plans and planners, is worth considering here. Because entrepreneurs operate in an epistemic environment where they can make use of knowledge made available by prices (i.e., a market), and because their plans are /not/ plans over other people’s production habits, their decisions to take what are often fairly wild steps into the unknown are helpful, not harmful. If their idea proves to be disastrous, they bear the risk, and they suffer the loss. If their idea proves to be as good or better than they predicted, they receive profit, and this is what advances economic progress. Hence markets are a sort of permanent revolution: constantly abolishing inefficient methods of production by building alternatives. This revolution is driven by people who have unique insight acting on that insight, taking initiative, and providing something radically different.

    Switching back to norms and institutions, it seems like any social application of Hayekian insights should also involve a social application of Kirznerian insights. People whose social location gives them unique insight into the problems with a given institution or practice should feel completely free to take whatever steps short of of top-down / totalizing approaches to “challenge, update and innovate” (or even eradicate) them /by using their own resources (both material and social) to create alternative institutions and practices./ Because these iconoclastic changes start from the bottom-up, and aren’t collectively pushed onto everyone, the people who bear the risks are those who make the leaps. If their alternative institutions and/or practices prove better than what existed before, we can safely let go of the old ones, feel fine about them toppling, and go on to live better lives.

    You seem to acknowledge something like this by talking about how norms and institutions arise like goods in a marketplace. But the lesson there doesn’t seem to be that “the radical libertarian cannot be a social iconoclast,” but that they /must/ be one, albeit without top-down or totalizing approaches to social change. Perhaps when you say “social iconoclast,” you specifically mean someone who looks toward top-down or totalizing approaches. But then the critique doesn’t apply to most “social iconoclasts” in libertarian circles, and we can still agree confidently that “institutions are too important not to challenge, update and innovate regularly.” In fact, that seems to be the exact attitude most likely to generate the most interesting forms of social entrepreneurship.

  3. gcallah says:

    This is a good first step. For step two, recognize that our political institutions are similarly evolved. Then you can drop libertarianism and really begin to think about what realistically might be improved.

  4. I like this post. But I have to push back just a bit, because I don’t believe you fully address how iconoclastic the typical young American person of either sex is today. You don’t have to be a porn star to differ radically with the views of just a few decades ago. All you have to do is be in favor of legal contraception.

    This is to say nothing of gay marriage, no-fault divorce, interracial marriage, and (gasp!) women in the workplace. All of the norms on these questions have changed recently, and I’d have to say hooray for the social iconoclasts who wrought those changes.

  5. “The changing of social norms and expectations is a slow and arduous process whose hand cannot be actively designed.” No cultural iconoclasts, whether they advocated for civil rights, against sodomy laws, for women’s liberation, are planning. They’re experimenting. Some experiments catch on. Others don’t.

    We can’t know whether the product innovators are destroying (like taxi cartels) are better than what’s replacing them (like Uber), except that we trust the market to guide adoption. The same is true of social norms!

  6. Zachary Slayback says:

    It’s not even the planning that is problematic — it’s the readiness to tear down existing institutions without knowing what the alternatives are.

    Experimentation is one thing — but forcing it culturally is another. The iconoclasts are ready to force the experimentation; either by drowning out alternative viewpoints or trying to identify the ends to which norms aim.

  7. Zachary Slayback says:

    Essentially: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in your readiness to dismiss existing institutions and traditions.

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