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.