On Mores as a Distinction between Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism

From Jacob T. Levy’s superb book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, p 154:

Montesquieu and those who followed him… agreed that… social worlds were not static; manners could become more polished over time, the wealth of nations could grow or decline, agricultural societies could become commercial societies, and so on. But none of these things happened by simple political decree. Governing should usually be done along the grain of such social tendencies and local particularities, occasionally in a way that might counterbalance some undesirable tendency, but never in sheer ignorance of or violence against them. The moeurs, manners, and customs of a society create a cultural reality that one may attempt to guide in one direction or another but that cannot be simply ruled.

Is this not also the key difference between classical liberalism and what we might call high or orthodox libertarianism? The former finds moeurs, or mores,[1] a useful analytic tool, and also a force to be reckoned with in the governing of society. The latter professes itself indifferent to mores and declares that the libertarian political program has nothing at all to do with them. (We’ve just seen Walter Block doing this, his personal mores notwithstanding.)

Consider the authors whom Levy alludes to in the above: The transition from agricultural to commercial society was a chief concern of John Locke’s. We all know who wrote on the wealth of nations. And the improvement of manners over time was a chief concern of Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and even Voltaire. We can see similar concerns animating later classical liberals, including but not limited to John Stuart Mill, who (otherwise rather oddly) conditioned his utilitarianism on a mores-like concern for higher and lower forms of pleasure, and Herbert Spencer, who was very concerned indeed with the development of improved morality over time, and Franz Oppenheimer, who saw the rise of agriculture and then of commerce as crucial developments in the formation of the modern state.

There’s a line to be drawn here, isn’t there? Modern libertarians are often tempted to view these aspects of classical liberalism as so much dross. They are at best a distraction, and more likely a hedge, and – at worst – they are a means of creeping away from the logical implications of so much else in the classical liberal corpus. We are told that the core ideas of classical liberalism would, if followed through consistently, yield something a lot more like Murray Rothbard. Mores do not matter to libertarianism, we are told – and, implicitly: look at the price we pay for even considering them![2] All that matters is the distinction between coercion and voluntarism.

Not everyone will agree with my suggested line-drawing, and I imagine the largest group of dissenters will be self-identified libertarians who claim, perhaps legitimately, that they do care about mores. Such folk do exist, of course. But the move to discount mores seems both very new as of the twentieth century and one of the more identifying moves of the libertarian movement.

The libertarian rejection of mores as having any analytic salience may also explain some libertarians’ otherwise inexplicable alliances with radical conservatism: If mores don’t matter, then these alliances are not as damning as they appear. But for most people, mores do matter, and that sets up a serious reputational problem (at the very least).

To my mind it needn’t be, and shouldn’t be, either-or. 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. Development of certain mores would clearly help the libertarian project, even narrowly understood, and development of others would clearly hurt it. To name just one example: The prejudice that condemns wagering now prevents many interesting types of markets from arising. That prejudice came about long before both prediction markets and the policies that have now begun to forbid them. And the prohibition will not go (which of course it should) until the prejudice does. (But how do we get rid of that?)

Mores wouldn’t stop there, either. A libertarian society might cheer for the opening of a vegetable market more strongly than it did for soldiers on parade. Its mores might differ quite radically from many of our current society’s, and not necessarily in ways that libertarians themselves can predict. It is odd, or it should be odd, not to ponder them along the way.

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.


[1] The word mores is often left untranslated as the French word moeurs, for reasons I’ve never understood. As a speaker of both languages, the English word seems perfectly adequate to me. It denotes the settled attitudes, manners, and customs of a society, exactly as the French word does. Frequently but not always, mores are hard to articulate. Individuals often constitute exceptions to a society’s mores, but those who deploy the term can usefully refer back to the general. Discussions of national character often ensue, as when someone describes the United States as being a particularly enterprising nation, or a particularly religious one. Or a particularly violent one. There are dangers of stereotypes hereabouts, but there is also useful empirical work to be done, and mores also touch on questions of tacit knowledge and trust, in ways I won’t get into here.

[2] Ayn Rand is the odd exception, as she so often is. Rand very clearly thought that things like manners and customs were important, and that mores followed necessarily (though perhaps unexaminedly) from values that individuals held. Whether those values were held rationally or not, mores mattered to her, and I suspect that an important part of building an Objectivist society, as she saw it, would lie in the identification of the various premises on which our mores were based, and on their improvement. One might even say that when Rand writes of a sense of life, she means the totality of one’s mores, insofar as they inform how we are to think about the human condition. Which of course they do. A lot. In this she seems to lie rather closer to classical liberals, and her insistence that she was not a libertarian takes on a new dimension.

Social Conservatism Isn’t Libertarianism

At the recent International Students for Liberty Conference, Mackenzie Holst, Aarón Shelby Baca, and Cory Massimino attempted to read an open letter to Ron Paul about his less-than-savory associations with some figures on the extreme right. I’m not sure that a question and answer session was the best venue for their message, but they raised some important points all the same. It was unfortunate that they were shouted down, and I understand that they have gotten a good deal of online grief in the days since.

They should take heart, however. Some of us are very much on their side. It’s worth quoting their comments at length, and I fully endorse them:

[A]s principled supporters of liberty, we find your appearance at the International Students For Liberty Conference troubling for a few reasons. Most of which relate to your past and current associations with certain individuals and organizations that we find un-libertarian.

We believe many of the people you have aligned yourself with and continue to align yourself with are libertarians only in name and their true ideology is one more akin to a bigoted and authoritarian paleo-conservatism. Your appearance at Mises Circle in Houston, Texas just a few weeks ago is a prime example of this.

The prevalence of an age gap in the libertarian movement has been underscored by the ideas discussed in conferences such as the Mises Circle and put forth by the Mises Institute itself. “Millennial” or “Second-wave” libertarianism is not going away and there seems to be irreconcilable differences between these new libertarians and the old guard, which includes figures such as Lew Rockwell, Hans Herman-Hoppe, Walter Block, Gary North, and yourself. In this letter, we would like to highlight the downright absurdity promoted by this obsolete style of thinking, as delineated in the racist, homophobic, and sexist undertones present in these thinkers’ writings.

The themes of bigotry at the Mises Circle and in many of your colleague’s writings are obvious. At the Mises Circle, Lew Rockwell, founder and chairman of the Mises Institute, compared the life of people under modern nation states to literal chattel slavery. We admit the state is a gang of thieves writ large. But this analogy is downright offensive to people have suffered actual chattel slavery as well as people who have relatively great living standards under modern states. Libertarians can expose the evils of statism without resorting to bad metaphors with blatantly obvious racist undertones.

Hans Herman-Hoppe, distinguished fellow of the Mises Institute, wrote just last year that, “it is societies dominated by white heterosexual males, and in particular by the most successful among them, which have produced and accumulated the greatest amount of capital goods and achieved the highest average living standards.” Hoppe has also advocated violence against homosexuals and other people who live lifestyles he doesn’t approve of, “There can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They-the advocates of alternative, non-family-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism-will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.” The racist and homophobic themes in these passages speak for themselves.

Walter Block, senior fellow at the Mises Institute, has argued, “Feminists and gays aren’t libertarians.” Also on the topic of homosexuals, Block has written, “If a seventeen year old is an adult, and voluntarily wants to have sex with an adult homosexual man, I may not like it. I may be revolted by it.” If that wasn’t clear enough, Block has made his bigoted views explicit, “I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sadomasochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior.” In addition, he has put forth the idea that “lower black IQs” could explain productivity differences between blacks and whites. Again, the arguments speak for themselves.

Gary North, an associated scholar at the Mises Institute, is an outspoken Christian Reconstructionist and supporter of biblical theocracy. North advocates capital punishment by means of stoning for women who lie about their virginity, blasphemers, nonbelievers, children who curse their parents, male homosexuals, and other people who commit acts deemed capital offense in the Old Testament. These views are certainly not representative of the libertarianism we’ve come to know and love.

To make quick work of two less than savory associates: I do not consider Hans-Hermann Hoppe a libertarian, because he is a monarchist. And I do not consider Gary North a libertarian, because he is very openly a theocrat. That leaves Walter Block, whose views are at least a bit interesting.

Here’s the original quote from Walter Block with a bit more context:

Just because a libertarian may refuse to incarcerate perverts, it does not mean he must remain morally neutral about such behavior. So, do we favor or oppose? Support or resist? Root for or against? In this dimension, I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sado-masochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior…

The libertarian may hate and despise the libertine, or he may not. He is not committed one way or the other by his libertarianism, any more than is the holder of the germ theory of disease required to hold any view on libertinism. As a libertarian, he is only obligated not to demand a jail sentence for the libertine. That is, he must not demand incarceration for the non-aggressing, non-child molesting libertine, the one who limits himself to consensual adult behavior. But the libertarian is totally free as a person, as a citizen, as a moralist, as a commentator on current events, as a cultural conservative, to think of libertinism as perverted, and to do what he can to stop it—short of using force. It is into this latter category that I place myself…

At one time I would have scoffed at the idea of doing something merely because it was traditional, and refraining because it was not. My every instinct would have been to do precisely the opposite of the dictates of tradition. But that was before I fully appreciated the thought of F. A. Hayek. From reading his many works (for example, Hayek, 1973), I came to realize that traditions which are disruptive and harmful tend to disappear, whether through voluntary change, or more tragically, by the disappearance of societies that act in accordance with them. Presumably, then, if a tradition has survived, it has some positive value, even if we cannot see it. It is a “fatal conceit” (Hayek, 1989) to call into question everything for which good and sufficient reason cannot be immediately given. How else can we justify the “blindly obedient” practice of wearing ties and collars, for example?

This is a very important subject for libertarians to get right as a movement. Certainly in the wider culture, people who find homosexuals abhorrent aren’t reproducing in large enough numbers that their opinions will pass as part of the conventional wisdom for very much longer. More and more, whenever such views show up, they will tend to raise eyebrows. Ordinary people, who now generally aren’t anti-gay, will inevitably start asking questions. And that means that we libertarians will need an answer. (As if having an answer for our own peace of mind were not sufficient!)

At least three possibilities open up. I should stress from the start that none of them involve the state persecuting gay and lesbian adults for consensual behavior. But that’s where the similarities end.

First: Are views like the above a core part of what libertarians ought to believe? Are they so important that it’s worth drawing a bright line between libertarian views on one side, and libertine views on the other? Block’s concluding paragraphs seem to say yes: The practice of condemning queer people in private speech must have some positive value, even if we can’t readily identify it. Precisely like giving up ties and collars, if we gave up speaking ill of people for their private sexual acts, our whole society might disappear.

This view would commit libertarians to opposing libertinage, so called. Not, of course, with oppressive laws, but certainly with private censure. One can never be too careful when society itself is at stake!

Second: Are views like the above an optional part of the libertarian ideology, bits that someone can choose – or not – as a matter of complete indifference?

Block seemed to suggest as much in his second paragraph. That is, just before he changed his mind and bit the social conservative bullet. Let’s suppose he was right in saying that these things are, for libertarians, an indifferent matter. (Let’s also suppose that what libertarians want is identical to what’s best for society. I will try not to care if I lose my nonlibertarian readers here. I need to do that sometimes, you know.)

If these views really are a matter of indifference – and if the rest of the libertarian program is not a matter of indifference – then we should cheerfully jettison our private social conservatism: Leaving it behind will help us win the things that really matter. And leaving it behind will not actually harm society. Our personal conservative preferences do not matter for good social outcomes: If we thought they did, we’d have picked the first of my three options. But we also perhaps would have added something alien to libertarianism.

Third: Are there not very solid, very libertarian reasons, to say that Walter Block is just plain wrong here? I think there might be. We claim to want individual liberty – but why? What makes liberty of this type a goal worth pursuing? Or – to state the same thing a bit differently – why is individual liberty a goal so important that we would forego many other goals to attain it?

The reason is as follows: You and I are different. As a direct result, different things will make us happy. And different things will repel us. We will have different convictions on matters that cannot easily be settled. We have different ideas of what a well-authored life would look like, and we are literally never going to agree on them.

As libertarians, we accept that we can use markets to sort a lot of these differences out, to trade on them and make efficient use of diversity. And when markets fail, we’ll retreat to our private lives and leave each other alone. That’s not nirvana by anyone’s lights, but it’s pretty solid. Carping about our private differences isn’t likely to make anyone happier, particularly when society isn’t actually at stake.

It also appears very doubtful as an empirical matter that a lack of repressive (though fully private!) attitudes toward homosexuality will cause civilization to collapse. Some things can and do cause civilization to collapse – but at least in the modern era, these things would all appear to require a government. So we can all relax already.

I have defended libertinage before, and I will continue to do so here: Past societies got all kinds of things flat-out wrong. They began with big things, like the status of women and racial minorities, and they ended with little ones, like ties and collars, which are no more the mark of a proper civilization than are culottes. One can be good or evil while wearing either one. (Can one be fashionable? That’s quite another question, and one on which we can have proper and even objective opinions in a much less heated context. Now is not the time or place.)

Lastly, Hayek’s insight that comprehensive social planning involves a fatal conceit does not commit us to accepting every random social structure that did not arise by our own planning. Besides the structures that we dream up ourselves, some of the ones that we encounter in the wild can also be pretty depraved. They can be every bit as bad as our own efforts, and often even worse. And sometimes, we can know it.

Oakeshott’s Empty Conservatism

To learn what conservatism is, one could hardly do better than Michael Oakeshott. Or so I’ve been told.

The trouble is that Oakeshott completely fails to tell us anything that could distinguish conservatives from everyone else. That is, if we didn’t already have some other distinction in mind, and if we didn’t silently substitute that distinction for his own, we would be unable to tell who was a conservative. Oakeshott adds nothing to the effort. In “On Being Conservative,” Oakeshott writes:

To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; it is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices….

[T]hey centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what is or what may be…

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible,l the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

An earlier version of myself scribbled in the margin: “but so many conservatives seem to despise the present: it’s turning into the future, and this is horrible.”

I do think I was correct, but the bigger problem here is that Oakeshott’s conservatism has no distinguishing content whatsoever. Oakeshott has given us what amounts to a description of everyone: Look at anyone who calls himself a conservative, and what distinguishes him turns out not to be Oakeshott’s definition of conservatism, but something else. Look at anyone who does not call himself a conservative, and he will be found entirely true to Oakeshott’s principles.

Do you put the left shoe on the left foot? Conservative. Eat soup with a spoon and not your fingers? Conservative. Vote in elections? If you live in a democracy, congratulations, you’re a conservative. Do you read this sentence in English, rather than performing numerology upon it to interpret its meaning? Conservative, yet again. Sleep in the nighttime? Conservative.

If you’re not Salvador Dali’s surrealist waiter, who brings a diner a flaming phone book, then you’re probably a conservative. And even if you are, well… did you do it naked? If not, your one (slightly) unconservative action is more than balanced out by your wearing of clothes. To say nothing of not walking on your hands, addressing the diner in Klingon, or wearing eau de skunk cologne.


The trouble is that there’s just too much ordinary life all about us. We all live in, and with, a very thick matrix of social convention, no matter how unconventional we are. And we all take it very much for granted, no matter how politically radical we may be: Joseph Stalin wore his shoes on the proper feet, and Mao Tse-Tung held firm to traditional Chinese medicine. (For all the good it did him.) And in a million other things, everyone is a conservative.

Meanwhile, everyone wants to innovate, but only in a comparatively few things. And when Oakeshott discusses innovation, he isn’t any better. He writes:

From all this the man of conservative temperament draws some appropriate conclusions. First, innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator. Second, he believes that the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss. Thirdly, he thinks that an innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances…. Fourthly, he favours a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments… [He] considers the most favourable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you that noted conservative political philosopher… Karl Marx!

Point by point:

1. In contemplating the proletarian revolution, Marx very clearly weighed whether the loss was likely to outweigh the gain. Famously, he found that the proletariat had nothing to lose but their chains. (They really were quite miserable at the time; this isn’t something he just made up.) Marx very explicitly and publicly considered what stood to be lost, and he found that the risk was very small indeed.

Now, as a non-Marxist non-conservative, I find personally it somewhat insulting to be told that no one other than conservatives considers the costs of a prospective change, but then, let’s stick with my interpretive framework here: I’ve been arguing so far that Oakeshott’s definition is vague enough to include everyone – Karl Marx included – so I guess it’s not really an insult, because it follows that everyone considers the costs of a prospective change. So it’s not an insult. It’s just empty verbiage.

2. Marx very clearly thought that the proletarian revolution would resemble “growth.” This was all but necessary by the terms of his dialectic. Marx wrote frequently of the stadial nature of history, of the development of human powers, and of the realization of our latent potential. The point of his envisioned revolution was not to tear down, but to grow beyond a present set of constraints. Here’s a bit from Friedrich Engels’ eulogy:

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.

Human life needed to look like growth, and to look like evolutionary biology in fact, if our theories were to have any chance of being true. (Fancy seeing today’s conservatives assent to that one, Michael Oakeshott notwithstanding. Taking this criterion to be definitive – and not his earlier, empty one – today’s conservatives might be nearly the only ones who fail, because they reject evolutionary biology, and thus the notion that natural development proceeds gradually. For them it doesn’t appear to proceed at all.)

3. The innovation Marx hoped for was clearly in response to a disequilibrium that he believed he had identified. Now, I personally think he was all wrong in his identification, but that hardly matters. Marx passes this test without batting an eyelash.

4. Marx thought the revolution was inevitable, and he believed – admittedly – that it might come very quickly indeed, but he did not believe that he could accurately predict its date, and he certainly thought that it could happen either prematurely or defectively. He worried for nearly all of his adult life about the present circumstances, and about whether or not they were propitious for change.

By Oakeshott’s definition, everyone can be a conservative, starting with Karl Marx. Indeed, we’re all pretty much helpless to do otherwise. But this does not indicate the strength of the definition. It shows that it’s completely vapid, because it can’t distinguish a thing. It’s a truism, and it’s used to disguise a particular agenda, namely the one that conservatives actually want.

This agenda as far as I can tell currently entails an attempt to romanticize the past (and not the present), to slyly (or not so slyly) denigrate women and minorities, and to deny scientific theories on the basis of a personal wish that they not be true. It also involves a good deal of flag-waving.

What all of this has to do with Oakeshott is anyone’s guess. But clearly modern conservatism can function without him. It’s not like Oakeshott’s definition actually does anything.

Image credit.

The Faith of Our Fathers

[More disjointed musings that didn’t make the book. I cleaned em up as best I could. And blogged.]

Pick a sports team. It can be from a sport you love, or a sport you hate, or even a sport you never cared about before. Just make sure it’s a team that you don’t already love (or hate). Watch that team anyway. Resolve to cheer for them. Hang out with people who already cheer for them. Learn the players’ names and stories. Pick some favorites from among them. Read up on the team’s history and lore. Buy their merchandise.

Sure, it’ll start out feeling fake. But before long, it probably won’t be. You’ll really and truly love them. You will feel with them – their losses, their wins, their injuries and their rivalries. You will manufacture a feeling, and then that feeling will take over. After that, you won’t have to manufacture anything. You’ll just feel it, and it will feel… real.

The evidence is there for sports teams, which is one area of behavior that we can ethically and uncontroversially experiment on. Particularly if you’re a child, you learn to identify with the team that everyone around you already loves. That’s not because the team is objectively better. It would seem to be because there’s a built-in mechanism for devotion, and team sports trip that, and all it takes is a nudge from your family and friends in one direction or the other.

Religion works kind of like this too, I suspect. But it’s maybe a little harder to reprogram.

I don’t want to give out too many details of my private life, but many years ago I dated a guy who was (and is) a follower of an unusual religion. I was an atheist at the time, and I remain one today. But I did go to quite a few of that religion’s events. At first I just followed along out of curiosity, and out of wanting to give that particular relationship a chance. It seemed like maybe the religion was going to be a part of that.

Eventually I got to know some of the people. I came to care for the success of the community. More: I found myself wishing I could believe as they did, even about the bits that were decidedly not my cup of tea. Even about the bits — and all belief systems have them — that were flatly preposterous. I wanted to believe them anyway.

I remember thinking that at a certain point I’d crossed a line, and from then on, if I had actually converted, no one would have been too surprised, and really, the more surprising thing would have been if I didn’t convert.

I felt distinctly icky about that. It felt like I was dealing with them falsely, no matter what I chose.

In a way converting would have felt very nice, and not converting — which is what I ultimately did — felt very uncomfortable. It probably hastened the end of the relationship. When it was over, I wondered how I could have been drawn to the religion in the first place. I simply couldn’t fathom it anymore. I’d been reprogramming myself, and it had almost worked. (It had worked the previous time, when I had become an atheist.)

Conversion is rare. Anyone in developed countries can find access to practitioners of nearly any religion. Yet it’s well known that most people never leave the religion of their parents: They learned to feel at home in that religion long before they realized that such feelings could sometimes be rewired. Perhaps they never realize that they can be rewired at all. And for most of them, damn, my religion feels good. My religion feels like… certainty. Said everyone at once.

But it’s possible to rewire that feeling of certainty. It can be done. It’s just difficult – more so with religion than with sports, because religion at least purports to have implications about our ethics, our metaphysics, and all sorts of other things. It affects one’s peer group, which probably needs to be rechosen, and it implicates one’s former peers in having made a bad decision. (If people wanted to rewire themselves to be law-abiding, which religion should they pick? Islam, it would appear.)

Is it too cynical to say that reprogramming is a part of how love works? Defenders of arranged marriages point to a familiar phenomenon: The couple starts out by arrangement, and they come to love one another.

“But you didn’t love him when you started out,” says someone from a culture where marriages aren’t arranged. And that’s the politer form of the inquiry. The less polite form holds that arranged marriages look to us entirely too much like rape, or like sexual slavery.

And the answer to these qualms? Roughly: “No, we didn’t love each other at first. But he was a good match, and we love each other now. And anyway, why are you so concerned about the emotions of my former self? Here I am, and I love him. You claim that people should only marry for love, and that’s precisely what I did. I married, and then I fell in love.”


That’s a hard argument to answer. Defenders of arranged marriage are unlikely to care about the quibbles I’d bring up – feminist stuff about how women should determine their own life courses, no matter what age they are. Or what about those tragic arranged marriages in which one or more partners is gay or lesbian or transgender? I expect all good traditionalists to snort at that one, but I’m really glad I didn’t grow up in a culture that arranges marriages.

And – you knew I was going here, right? – then there is politics. As with religion, your parents are among the best predictors of your political affiliation.

That shouldn’t be surprising. If you follow politics, you’re following a team, which is your party. And it feels… magnificent, doesn’t it? It feels like certainty. Meanwhile, here’s what political team-following does to your reasoning:

Partisans in a polarized environment follow their party regardless of the type or strength of the argument the party makes. Moreover, when individuals engage in strong partisan motivated reasoning, they develop increased confidence in their opinions. This means they are less likely to consider alternative positions and more likely to take action based upon their opinion (e.g., attempt to persuade others). In short, elite polarization fundamentally changes the manner in which citizens make decisions … citizens turn to partisan biases and ignore arguments that they otherwise consider to be “strong.”

Politics makes you feel good while telling you lies.

You can reprogram yourself here, if you like, but it will be difficult. And it’s only likely to land you on another team, with other biases, which will perhaps be equally bad. (Consider, as you leave one party for another: Someone else at the very same moment is making the opposite move, and they feel just as certain, and it feels just as great for them….)

And even if you end up satisfied with your new team, you probably shouldn’t be. Unlike in sports, there is an ethical dimension to our choice of team to cheer for. And the likelihood of any one party or ideology getting it all right is very, very low. My own included.

Better is this, from Jeffrey Friedman. On the documented ignorance of the American electorate, political scientists have proposed what is termed rational ignorance theory. It holds that people do not inform themselves about politics because it doesn’t pay to do so – their vote is unlikely to matter anyway, so ignorance is rational. But Friedman points out a flaw in the theory:

The fact that voters vote despite the astronomical odds against their votes being decisive is what political scientists call the paradox of voting…. Voters who know that their votes are unlikely to matter should not only fail to inform themselves politically; they should also fail to vote. The fact that voters vote, along with the polls showing that they think their votes do matter, indicates that the premise of rational ignorance theory is false.

People vote because they think – mistakenly – that they know enough to make a choice that would be as good or better than the outcome of the election. And they think – also mistakenly – that their vote will make a difference in a nontrivial number of elections. They think they’ve got things all figured out, and that their vote matters. They’re almost certainly wrong on both counts.

This tracks common sense better than rational ignorance theory, even if it is consistently cynical. Most people clearly do think that voting matters, and most people do think that they know enough to make a good decision. Is it all just a tic of the human mind that leads them to it? Is it all simply the urge to cheer for a team, and the difficulty of reprogramming oneself? Is it all just that feeling certain feels really good?

That may be a part of it, but I think there’s something more to it than that. There would appear to be a belief in politics that the answers are easy, and indeed, that someone has already found them, and all that remains to be done is to apply them – simply and straightforwardly, like solving a long division problem. And we can do that. Let us all do it grandly, as part of a team, the team of our parents, the team of all good and reasonable people….

[Image credit.]