Jason Kuznicki on mores

Here, using Montesquieu (and me, but me channeling Montesquieu) as a point of departure for his own very lively thoughts about classical liberalism and modern libertarianism:

We can of course elaborate on the distinction between coercion and voluntarism, and its implications in a complex society, and on what it means for our laws and our politics, while also recognizing that mores matter in all kinds of ways for the implementation of a good society. Mores delineate which policies appear reasonable for essentially all individuals in a polity. Mores explain why some societies appear to tolerate, or even demand, various forms of coercion more readily than others, and if that’s not important to implementing libertarianism, then nothing is. […]

Do note that this concern for mores does not necessarily entail any ideological softening on the distinction between free and coerced action, between voluntary and unrequited transfers. The two dimensions are completely orthogonal to one another. But I don’t think one should be indifferent to either of them.

I strongly agree with most of this. It gets at my discomfort with the debates about “thick or thin” libertarianism that have sometimes cropped up around here. I’m roughly a “political” [classical] liberal in Rawls’ sense, but that doesn’t make me normatively indifferent to the kind of social world that liberalism depends upon, or might generate.

Published on:
Author: Jacob T. Levy
  • Jerome Bigge

    Our biggest problem as libertarians is advocation of abstract ideas that don’t mean that much to most people. While at the same time rejecting ideas that might well benefit most people once these concepts are explained to them.

    I have pointed out many times in my blog on WordPress (muskegonlibertarian@wordpress.com) that we could considerably reduce our health care costs by elimination of government regulations that serve no practical purpose except to create economic monopolies that benefit the few at the cost of the many. That the incomes of the licensed professions and occupations to at least some extent are created through the creation of “closed markets” where the consumer has little if any power to change things. To make economic decisions when they are legally prohibited from doing so. You cannot decide for yourself to select a cheaper medication when your doctors decides upon a more expensive one. Also, although we have “free trade” in most consumer goods, it is an entirely different matter when dealing with “protected monopolies” like the drug companies. Who are free to price their product wherever they want because the consumer has no legal right to seek a lower cost product from outside the US.

    These are the sort of issues that I think libertarians should be pursuing. For example it was libertarians who first opposed our drug laws for years and years. Today we see the fruits of the opposition to the “drug war statists” in the form of the increasing legalization of marijuana. We could say the same about the issue of “gun control”, although the various advocates of concealed carry have pretty much “won” that issue today. It would seem that reducing the cost of health care would be another “winner” for us. Striking at the professional and occupational monopolies would be another. We probably pay a trillion to a trillion and a half dollars a year over what we’d pay if these legal monopolies did not exist. An amount of money that would save every American $3,000 to $4500 a year!

    Thank you for reading this.

    Jerome Bigge (aka) “muskegonlibertarian,wordpress.com”

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I think this is important because we libertarians often share the same problem that many progressives have in assuming that our ideas of so universal that it would be easy to institute them into any culture or society with great results. But I do not think that is so.
    Certainly in the long run human freedom will always trump forms of coercion but a nation’s history, culture, and values always come into play. What might strike us as a necessary liberty might strike a Russian, for instance, as merely an invitation for chaos and disorder. It does not really matter who is right as much as who is right for that culture at that time.

  • Sean II

    If mores are important to liberalism, then open borders = the probable destruction of liberal society.

    And I’m pretty sure mores are VERY important to liberalism.

    • j r

      Right, thee same way that open borders destroyed America over the past two hundred or so years.

      • Sean II

        Of course you are correct. Anything that ever worked under one set of conditions must needs work again, and in the same way, under a different set of conditions.

        Science tells us that.

        Although it doesn’t answer the more general question, the one relevant to the original post: is liberal society indifferent to its cultural or demographic base?

        Are you saying it is?

        • j r

          Who said “must needs?” Your original comment said that we can’t have both, when, in fact, we pretty much have had both.

          • Sean II

            Once, and then only for a time. I’m saying we almost certainly can’t have both now.

            But what of the more general question? Can liberalism thrive in any culture. If you say yes, then wow.

            If you say no, move on the the next question. Can liberal culture thrive equally among any people?

            If you say yes, you do seem to have a few examples. Some of them are messy. Some – like postwar West Germany, gone overnight from incorrigible authoritarian wolf to tame liberal house pup – quite inspiring.

            There are many more counter examples, though. Some quite painful.

          • j r

            Your raise interesting questions, questions that ought to be answered. My problem, however, is that I have a feeling that your answer comes down to some variant of brown people don’t understand liberal democracy, which is a supposition masquerading as a premise.

            The plain historical truth is that there has never been a time when the United States was any sort of libertarian paradise. It’s pretty hard to name a ten-year period in this country in which there was not some very egregious affront to individual liberty occurring. If anything, things are only getting better on the whole.

            And successfully assimilating immigrants is tough (see Europe’s issues with assimilating Muslim immigrants), but the problems we are facing here, now have much more to do with the domestic political landscape than with the immigrants themselves.

          • Sean II

            So I raise interesting questions, but you find it quicker to just call me racist. That’s cool.

            But the joke’s on you. I don’t trust Russians in large numbers either. Something about their culture seems to just love lapsing back into tyranny. Maybe it’s really something about them. And they are decidedly not brown people.

            So there.

          • j r

            Are you feigning offense? I addressed your questions.

            You are right that a robust liberal democracy is unlikely to break out in Russia anytime soon. And it’s probably worth noting that the Russian sections of Brooklyn are ground zero for all sorts of entitlement fraud. I don’t dismiss any of that. As I said, assimilation has its issues.

            But, the best way to wipe out entitlement fraud isn’t to bar Russians from immigrating; it’s to get rid of or reform the entitlements.

          • Sean II

            Well, I’m rarely offended so feigning seems like a good bet.

            If anything comes close to offending me, it’s this:

            “But, the best way to wipe out entitlement fraud isn’t to bar Russians from immigrating; it’s to get rid of or reform the entitlements.”

            And then only because it so clumsily evades the obvious: We can’t get rid of entitlements NOW, so we are NEVER gonna get rid of entitlements if we increase the number of people who live here, while thinking entitlements are good policy.

            And quick before you say it, Bryan Caplan’s “fine, then let them in without letting them vote” is a total joke, so far beneath him it’s not funny. For one thing, any group that establishes itself will eventually get the vote, because one party or another will benefit by giving it to them. But even more importantly – insert original post here – there are far better ways to influence a culture besides voting. And those cannot be limited by any immigration law.

          • j r

            I don’t find Caplan’s proposal to be particularly realistic, so no need for the pre-emptive move there.

            The problem is that there is nothing obvious about this:

            We can’t get rid of entitlements NOW, so we are NEVER gonna get rid of entitlements if we increase the number of people who live here, while thinking entitlements are good policy.

            What your saying is only correct if it is more feasible, both politically and logistically, to close the borders than it is to reform the welfare state. That’s another supposition masquerading as a premise. The very act of closing the borders would itself entail a drastic expansion in the apparatus and power of the state: public works projects to build bigger walls, more federal agents to patrol the borders, national IDs and databases and verification schemes, so on an so forth.

            In all likelihood, we will continue to muddle along under the present trajectory of not-quite-open or closed, call them leaky, borders and the slow and steady expansion of the welfare state. So, maybe we’re just whistling past the graveyard anyway. Who knows?

          • Sean II

            You don’t think it’s obvious that the persistence of entitlements is largely a function of the number of people who support entitlements?

            That’s interesting.

            As for the rest, who ever said I wanted to close the border? All the way closed and all or most of the way open are NOT the only options when it comes to border policy.

            They’re just the only STUPID options. Which I guess is why firebrand advocates for both sides love to talk about them, and them only.

          • j r

            You don’t think it’s obvious that the persistence of entitlements is largely a function of the number of people who support entitlements?

            No. I just don’t buy your accounting of who the people are who support entitlements and who the people are who don’t.

          • Swami Cat

            Sean is pointing to a genuine area of concern. If mores matter — and they certainly do — then large waves of immigration risk changing those mores in positive or negative ways.

            Said another way, it is theoretically possible that a large enough wave of immigration can destroy or swamp liberal mores or Bourgeois attitudes. This is something which a classical liberal should consider if they are concerned with the future.

            (Just wondering…. Are you the same jr who comments at Ordinary Times?)

          • Sean II

            Thanks Swami. If you’re new here, stay and watch the show.

            This is likely to be one of those broadcasts where I say something that should be fairly non-controverial (“liberalism requires a certain culture foundation, and can indeed break if severed from it”) but people get mad because it runs afoul of some socially desirable belief, thanks to a contradiction we’re normally supposed to ignore.

            You mean to tell me that thick libertarianism and cultural relativism don’t fit together like a couple of Legos? The fuck you say! That’s madness.

          • Swami Cat


            I don’t comment here too often, but I always get a kick out of reading your comments. Honestly I find them the highlight of the discussion. I think you do a masterful job of stirring up interesting questions and pointing out contradictions.

            For that I sincerely thank you.

          • j r

            I’ve nowhere said that immigration is not an area of concern. In fact, I’ve already twice spoken about the problems of assimilation.

            My contention is just that how immigrants are assimilated matters much more than from which geographic location those immigrants are coming.

            And yes, that’s me.

          • Swami Cat

            Hi j r. You know me better as Roger. I quit commenting over there. It wasn’t going anywhere. I still enjoy your comments when I scan the site though. Keep up the good work.

          • Libertymike

            True, they are not brown people.
            They are either white or red.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Let me raise another issue, free expression. Since the end of WW1 there has been a very robust if not perfect level of protection here. We are the only nation, as far as I know, with anything like the First Amendment. In general, European countries offer far less protection for controversial speech, and developing countries are generally a nightmare (blasphemy laws, etc.). If mores count for a lot, then I fear for free speech under open borders. The Constitution is only as strong as the judges appointed to interpret it, and this is in turn eventually decided by the popular will.

          • j r

            This country has been receiving immigrants as long as there has been a country and our speech and expression protections are as strong as they have ever been. In 1919, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a conviction for criticizing the draft because it constituted a “clear and present danger” to the U.S. war effort. That sort of thing would never fly today. Heck, Citizens United was probably the most significant expansion of free speech rights in a generation or so.

            In other words, if you want me to believe that immigration presents a danger to our speech and expression rights, you’re going to have to show me some actual causal evidence and not just imply that it’s so by comparing the U.S. to other countries.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I don’t know what kind of evidence you are looking for. The voters in Europe have had centuries to enact something like the First Amendment, but they haven’t. Instead, they have elected politicians that have passed “hate speech” laws, and then selectively enforce them. This suggests to me they have different values with respect to free speech issues than we do. In the third world, they don’t meaningfully elect politicians, but I have seen nothing to suggest that blasphemy laws and the like are unpopular. In fact, polling data suggests the opposite. Open borders would increase the percentage of the population here who do not value free speech in the way we do.

          • j r

            I don’t know what kind of evidence you are looking for.

            How about any?

            If there is more freedom of speech in America today than there was 100 years ago and immigration, especially second and third world immigration, has increased over that period, then your contention that immigration poses a threat to free speech is counter to tendentious at best.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            If you’re just going to blithely ignore what I say, see my ETA paragraph, then I don’t see much point to further conversation. If you really believe that the protection for free expression would be strengthened by major immigration here from Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, etc., then there is not much more to say.

          • j r

            What I am saying is that your conjecture about what could may possibly happen is not the proof that you think it is.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, “proof” means different things in different circumstances. It means one thing to a mathematician and another to an attorney, and another in a discussion like this. I’ll just leave it to our readers to decide whether my “conjecture” that open borders would likely weaken our right of free expression is more convincing than your opposite conjecture.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Ripped from the headlines. If you blog in Bangladesh, you die. If you don’t mind, I really don’t want these bastards living here. http://news.yahoo.com/attackers-hack-american-blogger-death-bangladesh-090128127.html.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            wow, got to call you on that pollyanish view. I do not think our freedoms have expanded in recent years and sure do not believe there is no danger to them. We have the McCain Feingold wholesale violation of the first amendment. we have Obamacare forcing people to purchase something, A first in this nations history. we have civil asset forfeiture. we have had speech codes on every college campus and we now have the government trying to seize control of the internet. Doesn’t look too good to me.

          • jdkolassa

            Yet conversely, we also have same-sex marriage, we have marijuana being legalized, gun control has receded, women have greater control over their bodies and their lives, and we no longer have laws prohibiting sodomy or obscenities.

            So it’s a mixed bag. The past ten years have been pretty bad, but you have to look at that in the context of the past century. And overall, we’ve made considerable progress. I’m also not convinced that these recent losses will be permanent (outside the loss of privacy; I think for multiple reasons that is dead and gone); I think they will be reversed in the next 10-30 years. Net Neutrality might not even survive the next SCOTUS season.

            Cheer up.

          • j r

            Pollyanish? I don’t think that you are using that word correctly.

            Mark made a specific point about freedom of speech and expression and I replied on that specific point. If you don’t believe that there freedoms have expanded in that particular area, then you should read the relevant jurisprudence.

            This isn’t a “view,” this is history.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            If you say so. Just don’t go trying to do anything you know, political with those new found powers or you might end up audited by the IRS or investigated by the FCC. And best not affiliate with Tea partiers or anyone like that if you know what’s good for you.

    • Theresa Klein

      Do you really think that the cultural mores of hispanics are so vastly different from Western liberalism?
      We’re talking about Roman Catholics, and people whose cultural heritage comes from Western Europe, here. It’s not like we’re experiencing waves of immigration from Saudi Arabia.

      If We’re not going to be open to hispanics, we might as well ban immigration from Eastern Europe, Italy, Greece, and Russia, while we are at it.
      Those Eastern Orthodox mores can’t be allowed to contaminate our WASP heritage.

      • Sean II

        Well, if there’s one culture we can definitely trust with freedom, it’s Roman Catholicism. They wouldn’t harm a fly. Perhaps because flies don’t try to control their own reproductive habits with science …but hey, who’s picking nits?

        To your main point: I don’t know. On the one hand, Hispanics who make it across the border seem to do pretty well. There is no obvious cultural incompatibility rising to the level of a deal-breaker.

        Two problems: 1) That might not hold true if the numbers increased dramatically. 2) We probably shouldn’t JUST IGNORE the fact that most Latin American countries are a corrupt mess. It would be foolish to think NONE of that mess, i.e. none of the culture which causes or tolerates it, is portable.

      • Sean II

        Oh yeah, and to answer your second paragraph:

        You offer that as a quip, but I’m quite serious. One of the surest ways I can think of to ruin the culture I love would be to load this country up with Danes, Swedes, Finns, etc.

        It’s not just that they’re pretty damn statist. That whole culture gives me the anti-individualist creeps. Less now than before, but still quite enough.

        But let’s be realistic: the Nords aren’t much of a threat because mostly they’re staying where they are. And even if they werent, there aren’t enough of them worldwide to do much mischief.

        Even if they all showed up tomorrow, they wouldn’t have the demographic heft to turn this place into Ibsen’s bad dream. Hence, I don’t spend much time worrying about the Nords.

        • Theresa Klein

          So your basically worried that the mores of 18th century England, as established in Colonial America will be contaminated by cultural influx from … pretty much everywhere except England.
          Sorry, but I think that ship has sailed.

          • Libertymike

            That ship has sailed but it also sailed out of Southampton a long time ago.

          • Sean II

            I don’t care too much about 18th Century England. It made a nice setting for that one really long Kubrick movie, but other than that…

            Don’t miss the point, though: here in the U.S. we found something good, something really good, especially in the time period 1945 to 5 minutes ago.

            The question is, how much to play with the formula when we don’t know how it works?

            That question cannot be answered without considering the fact that, apart from a few delicate examples, most ages have been dark, most places miserable, and most peoples wretched.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        Theresa the answer to your question is simple. If we have open borders, (which is pretty much what we have defaulted to) then how can you know if we have Hispanics coming in? How do we know if we have jihadists coming in ? how can we know if we have criminals and drug lords coming in ? How do we know anything? We Don’t, because we have failed to do things the right way and process people. Immigration is good, I like it, but not even knowing who is coming into your country is idiotic.

    • Jason Kuznicki

      My sense is that the equivalence you make in your first sentence is not very well supported empirically. As a result, I don’t feel compelled to pick one or the other.

      • Sean II

        You don’t think, for example, that the empirically well supported failure of liberalism to catch on the Middle East has something to do with Middle Eastern culture?

        If not that, then what? Surely this is a fair question, and one you can answer quickly.

        • j r

          Whether liberalism can catch on in the Middle East is an entirely different question than whether receiving immigrants from the Middle East impedes the development of liberalism here.

          They are related questions, but not to the extent that you assert.

          For one thing, the folks doing the most to squash liberalism abroad are not generally the folks who immigrate to more liberal places.

          • Sean II

            1) “They are related questions, but not to the extent that you assert.”

            Well I don’t remember asserting an extent, so I’m not sure how you might know whether the truth is more, or less.

            2) “For one thing, the folks doing the most to squash liberalism abroad are not generally the folks who immigrate to more liberal places.”

            That’s probably right if we’re talking about the U.S., from say, birth to 1980. Quite possibly wrong if we’re talking about California since 1980.

            It’s DEFINITELY WRONG if we’re talking about Western and Northern Europe today.

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