Libertarianism, Book/Article Reviews

Libertarianism and Good Manners

Etiquette gets a bit of a bad rap from philosophers. Part of the blame, I suspect, has to go to Philippa Foot, whose otherwise excellent article, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” famously employed etiquette as an example of a set of norms with which we have only trivial reasons to comply, if any at all. But even apart from Foot’s article, philosophers – especially moral philosophers – seem to have a hard time taking good manners seriously. After all, while morality is thought to consist of principles that are universal and of the utmost seriousness and importance (“Thou shalt not kill,”) the rules of etiquette are quite clearly culturally relative and seem scarcely connected at all with any important considerations of human well-being (“Use the leftmost fork for your salad”).

I can understand why philosophers feel this way. I can maybe even especially understand why libertarians feel this way. After all, we libertarians often feel an intense distaste for authority (or so says Jonathan Haidt). And I suspect that many libertarians – long before they ever even begin to think about politics – chafe at the idea of some advice columnist telling us how to structure the finer points of our private lives. We don’t like being told what to do, not by the state, and not by Miss Manners.

But I think this is a mistake. Or, more accurately, it is a whole cluster of mistakes. It is a mistake, first of all, to think about rules regarding the location of forks as paradigmatic of manners and etiquette. It is a mistake, too, to suppose that there is no important distinction to be made between the rules of etiquette and the principles of manners. And it is a mistake for libertarians, especially, to disdain all this business as the stuff of authoritarian busy-bodies.

I’m not the first person to note this last point. Fellow libertarian philosopher Loren Lomasky is, like me, an admirer of the great Judith Martin. And in his 1997 Reason Magazine review of one of her books, he makes it clear why. Societies, he argues, need rules to keep people from bumping in too each other too roughly. The state is one potential source of those rules. Morality is another. But we should not, he argues, neglect the importance of etiquette. Especially if, as libertarians, we want to minimize the role of the state as rule-maker and enforcer.

An order of manners substitutes for coercion the authority of custom, for external enforcement self-restraint, for central planning decentralized decision making. Its protocols, euphemisms, and ritual may seem arcane to outsiders, but their effect is to mark off and protect a private domain within which individuals enjoy a limited sovereignty over their own affairs. Rudeness, like big government, is intrusive. And like big government, it is cancerous. Just as the shortcomings of one welfare state program beget another and yet another, so too do thoughtless behavior and rude remarks metastasize. Miss Manners teaches us that “Mind your own business!” is the first principle of good manners. It is also the core of liberal political philosophy.

I would think, moreover, that libertarians would find the topic of good manners theoretically interesting. Manners and etiquette are, after all, kinds of spontaneous orders. And the nature and workings of spontaneous orders is, of course, a subject near and dear to libertarians’ hearts. Libertarians have already taken a keen interest in work like that of Robert Ellickson, who explores how “Order Without Law” can emerge through the customs and informal practices of farmers and cattle ranchers in Shasta County. And there are certainly plenty of interesting philosophical issues in the study of conventions and informal norms. The principles and rules of manners and etiquette seem a natural extension of this research programme.

If you’re interested in thinking more seriously about this, I highly recommend listening to this wonderful interview with Georgetown philosopher Karen Stohr, author of the new book in Routledge’s “Thinking in Action” series,  On Manners One of the more interesting and important distinctions she makes in the course of the interview is the distinction between the more general principles of manners, which counsel us to treat one another with respect, and the more culturally specific rules of etiquette, which Taylor the principles of manners to the specific circumstances of a particular time and place. It’s a fascinating, well-conducted, and truly enlightening conversation that left me wishing it had gone on for far longer than the hour it did. I haven’t read the book yet, but I just downloaded a Kindle version. Really looking forward to it.

  • I agree, and I think your point about systems of etiquette being a kind of spontaneous order is the best reason to value such systems. That said, many rules of etiquette are derived from times when our social lives were even more ordered and driven by class, race, and gender privilege, and so it is not that surprising that many Libertarians feel that such systems are constraining, and that these constraints outweigh the social-ordering benefits that accompany well-mannered behavior. The illustration at the top of this post is a perfect example- it provides clear rules of behavior, and is a kind of ordering of society, but it is based on ideas of gender roles that most Liberals and Libertarians reject.

    Systems of etiquette that derive from more modern social equality are much less controversial. There are many “polite” behaviors originating in modern times (hang up your cell phone when ordering food, or “puff, puff, pass”), that don’t really have any social inequality connotations, and these etiquettes seem accordingly less controversial.

    • Graham Peterson

      Very insightful, Mr. Stieber, but the beauty of emergent mores is that we can re-order them in the street, which makes the potential for the sort of “Leviathan of etiquette” much less threatening.

  • Maybe we should organize a Libertarian Philosophers Judith Martin Fan Club. I’m a big fan too.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Don’t disagree at all, Matt.

  • See? There IS overlap between libertarianism and utilitarianism!

    • Damien S.

      Not sure why you brought up utilitarianism, but I did think recently that there really is a deep abstract overlap. Both are highly rational, in the mathematical sense, putting numbers on everything. Market prices for one, utility estimates for the other, but ideally everything can be given a real number and traded off against other things. This extends Steve Pinker’s mapping of other moral foundations to math concepts: community/family/in-group to nominal (yes/no, in/out), hierarchy/authority to ordinal (higher vs.lower), equality matching to one-to-one correspondence (favor for favor).

  • A stream of GMU economists have been studying “order without law” by looking at pirates, prison gangs, and rum runners. In a sense, a study of manners and etiquette is a complementary effort in anarchy studies. As the Lomansky points indicate, manners aid in cooperation (without a centralized authority!).

    But there is also a cost, since manners can be a barrier to entry. Just as native-born speakers have a language fluency that most non-natives can only approach with great effort, native-born persons will have cultural fluency that non-natives have to expend great effort to acquire.

    Studying manners as a kind of morality would also help make apparent that some rules of manners are better than others and give form to the notion of progress in manners. Seems like a promising realm of social economy which has been heretofore neglected.

    • Damien S.

      Sometimes, the cost is exactly the point, from the POV of the etiquette culture, a way of identifying and keeping out outsiders or the hoi polloi. Much like accent. I’ve read that the big rise in etiquette manuals and columns was with the rise of the middle class and bourgeoisie, seeking to learn the manners of their ‘betters’, who of course learned such rules naturally and needed no manuals.

      • Graham Peterson

        I had no idea. Further reading? I’m not sure if we should interpret that as a positive development of social mobility, or a negative class contest. I would prefer social mobility. After all, having a lot of middle-class mucks rob the upper class of their exclusive, tacit cues brings the top down as much as the bottom up. What do you think?

        • Damien S.

          Sorry, just have memory, not references to hand.
          Related phenomena: how “gentleman” became a term of politeness, not a specific term referring to good birth and property ownership. Or “nobility” of spirit.

          Yeah, the upper class get robbed of cues, but then the middle class turns and uses them against the lower class, while the upper class probably invents new cues of their own. Sort of a step forward, but still playing the game, vs. trashing the game via real social egalitarianism. This is probably something where the US (and other colonies) really did advance on England and much of Europe, though of course we have our own class markers of accent and dialect and clothing. (“White trash”, “ghetto”.)

  • TracyW

    Isn’t “use the leftmost fork for your salad” a bit like “the red light means stop, the green light means go”? It allows people to coordinate behaviour and so is connected with human well-being. In particular, in a multi-course meal, if your host has got things right it means avoiding winding up having to eat a steak equipped only with a spoon, or a creme brulee with your fingers, because all of the previous utensils were whisked away.

    It might not be the most important of matters, and definitely isn’t as important as obeying traffic instructions, but how much brain space do you want to devote at a dinner party to keeping track of utensils? And much of our lives is lived on the level of details like this.

  • Indeed, manners and etiquette are the rules of conduct which have evolved from human action, but did not come from human design, but which can and should undergo imminent criticism. The fact that something is cultural should not discredit it. Cultural expressions are the particulars of our deeper human instincts. Etiquette and manners should in fact be considered a proper aspect of the study of morals — precisely because they help us to live better with others, to be more social (one cannot be made to be more social). In fact, one could argue that manners and etiquette create the habits for deeper moral developments and ethical actions.

  • Graham Peterson

    I’m going to go ahead and say this is the most important thinking we might do as libertarians. Most of liberal theory takes the form of a negative argument against the state. Of course the rebut is easy — without the state there is anarchy. Then everyone gets down on their knees and libertarians get a reputation for being a lot of craggy, angry loons.

    So let’s not get caught up in the negative argument, and offer a positive one — an alternative. It’s not that some token coordination in Shasta County represents the *potential* alternative to State intervention — it’s that informal mores are a *majority* of what anyway and always glue society together — yep, peaceful, participatory, cooperative mores. People aren’t knaves, and we only promote that premise as libs when we publicly favor tweak-the-lion’s-tail arguments about how more deviant behavior ought to be allowed (though yes, it should).

    The largest caveat here, which leaves me uneasy, is that the State itself springs from the same well that emergent mores spring from. We might have to concede that common law is indeed a codification of organic mores that achieve their dominance naturally and mostly voluntarily — but that the enforcing of those rules once they’ve established dominance paradoxically works to undermine the very process that brought them to glory in the first place.

    • Damien S.

      Is there really a deep difference between being coerced by a democratic state and being coerced by shunning and other private enforcement of social norms? Both laws and manners work to maintain social order by constraining individual liberty and choice. If one’s attraction to libertarianism is, at a gut level, one of maximizing individual choice and not being told what to do, then replacing laws with manners may be only a sideways step, and in many particular cases, a step back.

      The fundamental problem is not living in a state or not, but living in a dense and high-powered society where externalities or “brushing up against each other” are unavoidable, requiring social coercion of one sort or another to solve.

  • One can also view the rules associated with manners as ways to deal with the omnipresent externality problems of human social cooperation. We will indeed always rub up against each other and impose all kinds of costs on each other (What a freakin’ ugly shirt Matt’s wearing today, I think to myself). Were we to actually try to act on those external costs (by saying that to Matt), we would quickly destroy civilized behavior. (This is why *Liar, Liar* is such an interesting movie.) By having a set of rules that proscribe our behavior in these smaller scale social interactions, we have developed a very effective, spontaneously ordered, way of dealing with the external micro-costs of social order.

    I think a philosopher’s touch along with a dash of Lin Ostrom and Ronald Coase would make for a very interesting analysis of these issues.

    • Graham Peterson

      Interesting view. We could say that largely, social mores and guides are a solution to the costs of all social transaction. In that sense, do you think their power is limited to solving these externalities at the diadic, or micro level? I don’t.

      I’m reading Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action right now. He digs deeply into the social scientific intuitively-supposed differences between small groups and large groups. I don’t find his argument convincing, that large groups necessarily suffer from larger free rider and public good production problems because the spoils are split up among more people (as to make any individual contribution not worth the cost). It’s a fixed-pie argument, and we might suppose that many social public goods like mores increase in increasing proportion to how many people participate/contribute — making it well worth the while of purposive individuals to contribute to large scale social projects like nationwide cultural ideologies etc.

    • Lin Ostrom’s work does provide useful connections here. The social norms governing sustainable common pool resource use within specific communities are kind of like morals or manners, and enforced sort of like morals and manners – by exclusion, avoidance, and reputational mechanisms (aka, “gossip”). You might well describe these social norms as ways people in a community “avoid bumping into each other too roughly” in the common pool resource domain.

      • Damien S.

        But do such solutions scale to societies with millions of people?

  • Good to see a book by Karen! Every year to my students I cite her example of why it’s not always good to enjoy virtuous actions.

    • I haven’t read the book yet, and am not familiar with the example. Could you share it?

  • CFV

    Very interesting post. I instantly remembered Montesquieu’s doux commerce thesis: “there is commerce. And wherever there is commerce, manners are gentle.” (cited in Hirschman A. O. “Rival interpretations of market society: civilizing, destructive, or feeble?”
    Journal of Economic Literature (1982) 20:1463–84)

  • There is an interesting contrast between interpersonal behavior when standing with a person, as opposed to interaction via a social media, web pages, etc. Where people tend to accept social etiquette in face-to-face encounters, they also tend to ignore them when online. The result is usually a massive increase in conflict, hurt feelings and misunderstandings. From this I conclude that etiquette not only greases the social wheels but, because it reduces conflict, it makes it easier for us to understand one another. In that sense there is a link between etiquette and knowledge, at least knowledge in relation to what others mean or are thinking.

  • Christopher Morris

    Matt, I like most everything that you say, except one thing: you get Foot wrong. In the (in)famous article you cite — which she repudiated, by the way — she argues that some imperatives of etiquette are categorical, not hypothetical. Elsewhere she notes that the concerns we tend to label as matters of etiquette are old and often silly conventions that have lost their point (and some of them served to make other inferior), but that we never do that with examples of moral requirements. It’s important to note that the conventions of manners that we take seriously — do not pick your nose or fart at the dinner table — we take seriously.

    I, for one, find it hard to distinguish between morality and manners and etiquette. Once one recognizes that justice does not exhaust “morality”, it becomes harder to draw sharp boundaries — and quite possibly, uninteresting to try. The important questions are how should we live, what should we strive for, what must we never or virtually never do, usw.

  • Todd Seavey

    I just have to note that it seems to me there is a philosophy already that has been working for many decades to combine free-market reasoning with a more or less Hayekian respect for the gradually-evolved voluntary social codes by which people order their lives in the absence of legislation and regulation, and that philosophy is called _conservatism_. Welcome aboard.

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  • What happens when the societal norm becomes extreme discourtesy? Ever since the counter culture of the 1960’s an increasing number of people, particularly but not exclusively, in the entertainment industry are given to anger, disdain, and profanity in the normal discourse. If politeness is the engine oil of society then what about studied rudeness?

  • Lars Christensen

    Matt, excellent post! I have wanted to written something like this for at least 10 years. I no longer have to think about that – I will just give a reference for you post.

    I tend to believe that the more libertarian a society the more “conservative” norms. We need norms and manners to solve externalities. Government is bad at solving externalities, but so is the “pure market”. Voluntary norms provides a solution. That is why libertarians should talk about manners and norms as a privatization strategy.

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  • Roderick T. long

    There’s a very funny typo in this post.

  • KateReger1

    Practical commentary ! Speaking of which , if anybody is wanting to merge two PDF files , my co-workers found announcement here