Social Norms

The Law, Legislation, and Tolerance

by Alex Merced

As mentioned by George Mason University economist Don Boudreux, F.A. Hayek had important insights into society’s institutional behavior in his distinction between the Law and Legislation.The distinction being that legislation are rules formally instituted by a legislative body (think government) and laws are the rules we universally and informally follow.

Driving home the distinction:

– It is legislation that prohibits the sale and use of marijuana in the United States, but it’s not necessarily a piece of legislation people follow strictly because this has weakened over time as social law.

– While there is no explicit rule to not cut people in line, we all know not to and generally don’t. This would be an example of a social law.

Often times legislation is guided by law, because legislation that runs contrary to the societal laws of the time will often be difficult to pass, much less enforce, without political consequences. From a libertarian standpoint, this creates several implications that libertarians should concern themselves with.

1. Societal Law can be a barrier to Coercive Legislation: While politics is not really an ideological sphere of society (politicians use ideology to gain power successfully more so  than ideologues use politicians to shape society successfully). So if libertarians are concerned with the size of government and equality under the law (meaning legislation that does create arbitrary societal divides), then the societal law (culture, norms, ethics etc) should hold these things in high regards so that legislation that runs counter to these goals finds it difficult to exist or be enforced. Luckily, the United States has a deep historical culture of inclusiveness (melting pot), skepticism of central rule (revolutionary war, Nixon Scandals, NSA), and celebration of individual achievement (when we think of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other entrepreneurs, we think of their individual achievement first, and barely, if ever, think of any indirect or direct government involvement in their enterprises). So the United States societal law has always been primed to keep certain lines difficult to cross more so than other nations (not that they haven’t been crossed, or that these barriers haven’t weakened at all).

2. Not participating in shaping societal law can make the fight against coercive legislation an uphill battle: If we don’t, through cultural transmission channels like family (how many laws/manners did you learn from your parents), media (how much did you learn from certain TV shows and movies), and the education system, attempt to make or keep things like property rights, non-aggression, and appreciation/tolerance of the individual part of societal law we will find legislation drifting further into larger violations of these values that libertarians hold dear.

So, distinguishing the external forces that shape our behavior and choices into law and legislation can be a very useful tool in solving the types of problems and issues us libertarians concern ourselves with. Another useful taxonomy is that of Institutions and Organizations from economist Douglass C. North. In this breakdown, institutions are the formal and informal human constructs that we allow to limit our behavior (legislation, laws, etc.) and Organizations are the hierarchies of how individuals organize to accomplish a shared goal. So if we look at a university, the distinction between the organization (the president, faculty, and their powers) and the institution (the formal school rules and informal traditions that have developed) can be broken down to help understand the social dynamics.

Libertarians making an effort to use these types of insights to improve and strengthen our understanding of society within the framework of Libertarian philosophy present a great opportunity to push forward the importance and argument for our cause.

It’s Ok! Libertarians Can Think Something is Bad or Wrong

by Brian William Waddell

After my last piece, someone questioned whether a “true Libertarian” (this phrase alone begs the question of what a true libertarian is, and whether the size of the “L” matters, but that’s for another post) is allowed to think that having a female-only tavern or Christians only theater is wrong. Sure. Why not? I don’t personally think it’s wrong, I just think it’s bad business. But the idea that holding an anti-segregationist opinion flies in the face of libertarianism is absurd. The key distinction is that I will fight for your right to have that silly segregated business while I tell you it’s a bad idea and you shouldn’t do it. If that makes it so that I’m not a “true Libertarian” I’m okay with that.

Why Limit Your Possibilities?

If you were opening a retail business that had a target demographic of, let’s say, women between the ages of 21 and 35, would you only allow people in that specific group to come in? No, that’s silly. Maybe just limit it to women? That seems like a slightly smarter choice. But what if a man wants to purchase some of your goods for his significant other? Clearly this means the best route for the business is to be open to men and women. I can understand the niche market for a tavern only allowing women, ostensibly for a less meat market-like environment, but there is a reason there are not many of them around. Limiting your audience of your own accord is bad business. Usually the audience that a business serves is limited enough by outside factors without internal silliness.

I’ve run enough businesses over the years to understand that the best policy for building and maintaining a business is one of open arms and friendly smiles. Nobody should be turned away.

Right to Refuse Service

On that note, I’ve already written a piece on my own liberty-centric site regarding a recent event where a bakery declined to make a wedding cake for a wedding between two men. The baker was well within his rights as a business owner. He wasn’t within his legal capabilities as a business owner (according to one judge) in Colorado, however. Therefore, he was ordered that he had to make cakes for same-sex couples. This is the problem, and also the distinction. A business owner should be able to choose to not serve people for any reason. Yes, I said any reason. It’s wrong and ignorant to do it for certain reasons, but it’s still something that must be allowed. The free market dictates that just as the business owner need not serve people, people need not patronize that business.

I‘m Allowed

I think taking adverse action toward people based on the color of their skin is wrong. I think taking adverse action toward people based on their sexual preferences is wrong. I think taking adverse action toward people based on their religion is wrong. I’m allowed to think these things are wrong. I’m also allowed to say, “Yeah, that’s wrong, but he can run his business how he chooses. I’ll just never shop there.” On a philosophical level, at least, I have no problem with the creation of “black only” schools or other institutions. I have no problem with “Asian only” schools. I have no problem with “white only” schools. Frankly, as long as all groups are allowed to have their own institutions I don’t see how anyone is actually left out. Another requirement would be that nobody would be compelled to (they can if they want to, of course) pay for the institution. This would be allowed if we were truly living in a place of liberty. (I think all of the above institutions are silly and run counter to improving society because experiencing diversity is a key to becoming a well rounded individual. But, to each his own.)

Make My Day

Go ahead. Open a business where you only allow redheaded men with handlebar mustaches over the age of 33. Call me when you reach your first anniversary and I’ll throw you a huge party to celebrate.

Why libertarians should care about Tolerance

by Alex Merced

After my article on advocating for tolerance of/acceptance for the transgender population I got several critical messages not about whether people should be accepted/tolerated but attacking my libertarian bona fides for even discussing it, as if being libertarian means being completely agnostic on the outcome of all issues all the time. If anything, these individuals have seemed to miss the point of my article, and possibly of libertarianism itself.

From the libertarian perspective just about everything should be solved by the interplay of individuals and their choices, also known as markets. Which cell phones should be sold? Let the market decide. How should you educate children? Let the parents decide. Which house should you buy and how should you finance it? You should decide. This extends to the market for values and preferences (what you think is right or wrong, what rituals and traditions do you practice, how do these things change), etc. Although these things evolve in an interplay of individual choices (a market) as well, even if there aren’t direct exchanges of money, decisions are made and some social norms succeed and fail over time.

These markets work because people act on their preferences and values. As a libertarian, I want people to have a view on which cell phone they want, to choose to act on that view, and even evangelize their choice. I just don’t want anyone making the choice for them. As a participant in the market for social norms, I am entitled to being able to choose the norms I like and evangelize them. I’m free to make the claim that if people voluntarily embrace these norms the world may be better off (I just don’t advocate forcing people to adopt these norms).

To me, engendering a culture of tolerance and acceptance has many consistently libertarian benefits:

– Libertarians are against violence and coercion. It’s one of the primary reasons we have such a distaste for government as a mechanism for economic or social engineering  (the fact that it often works poorly at doing so doesn’t help). Intolerance can often be a big motivator of violence (a good transgender friend of mine was recently beaten and sent to the hospital with her boyfriend). While I think there should be equality under the law and a crime should be treated as a crime for a jury (the judge should have the discretion to lessen or worsen a punishment based on circumstances in my view, but the jury should only determine if a crime has been committed not determine whether they liked the motivation for the crime which is what hate crime legislation does). Although, if social norms were more tolerant from the get go, the violence may have never occurred for it to be a legal issue in the first place.

– Promoting tolerance doesn’t mean people don’t have the right to be intolerant with their own property and choices, but promoting tolerance is about ending the atmosphere that makes people feel it’s alright to destroy someones property because they may be different in some way.

My point is that if libertarians are anti-coercion and anti-force, creating a culture that exalts individual choice and property ownership and shames violence/coercion from government or individuals is a project that must be actively taken on. If this isn’t, other cultural norms that may be ok with violence/coercion will win out in the cultural market.

Libertarians Should Lead the Way for Transgender Acceptance

by Alex Merced

Libertarianism is often well known for its concerns over the use of government power in solving economic and social issues, primarily because such power often attracts the wrong people to wield it and can often do more harm than good (a government that is powerful enough to establish and enforce hate crime legislation is also a government strong enough to establish and enforce the fugitive slave act.) So when it comes to issues of tolerance, you won’t find a philosophy more celebratory of diversity and tolerance (a free market works because of a diversity of goods, services, firms, and individuals) but often lambasted for its refusal to cross the line of using government power to compel tolerance or intolerance (or compel anything in that matter).

Although, just because libertarians do not want to use government power to force social progress, it doesn’t mean libertarians shouldn’t express social values and engage in the discussion of social norms. Over time, social attitudes have changed to more tolerant ones. Tolerant in a greater way than just “I don’t mind those people” but extending to being able to share space and participation in social institutions such as entrepreneurship, leisure, and family. In the generation prior to mine this battle over tolerance was focused here in the U.S. over tensions between the African American and White populations, and in my generation it has been about tensions between homosexual and heterosexual populations. These days it’s not just that there is tolerance for African Americans and Homosexuals but widespread acceptance of their participation as business owners, as co-workers, consumers, and as part of household formation.

The struggle for tolerance and acceptance in the coming generation will have a lot to do with gender identity. We are currently witnessing controversy over how to handle bathrooms for transgender students, and physical assaults against them in photos on instagram or video on YouTube. While the transgender population has enjoyed an increase in tolerance along with homosexuals (the two populations are not the same despite often being lumped in the same category) acceptance of the transgender population still has a long way to go.

Now, tolerance and acceptance is not just about feeling good that peoples lives are a little bit better. It serves an economic and social function as well. A broader participation in economic institutions such as entrepreneurship benefits everyone, adding people to the labor force benefits everyone, but sometimes intolerance and a lack of acceptance can reduce participation in these institutions.

So how can libertarians improve tolerance & acceptance of Transgendered and other populations suffering intolerance at no fault of their own without the use of government force?

– Media: Shows like Cosby, Will & Grace, and other introduced these populations in a broader way not as a spectacle but as people with their own lives, challenges, and families. How about a sitcom with a transgender protagonist facing many of the same family issues we all do? The images we grow up with in our culture determine many of our sensibilities, so we should use this to our advantage. Transgender characters often do exist in media but often as a “spectacle” in roles that societies “allow” to be accepted (hairdresser, model, prostitute) but where is the transgender business owner or engineer (they do exist) in the public eye?
*The character of Sophia Burset in Orange is the new Black is by far the boldest transgender character on tv with complex family and health issues that make her interesting, although she is often found doing hair, thus keeping transgender activities in a narrow band.

– Support: Sometimes it’s just about breaking vicious cycles, many young children who open up to their parents are often cast out and forced to be runaways. Being ripped away from the support system of the family affects their ability to get educated and to later be able to participate in the traditional labor force. Fundraising and volunteering for shelters and education for runaway youth can help break the cycle.


While empowering government to solve social problems will often result in empowering them to create social problems, libertarians should not allow big government progressives to attempt to hold a monopoly on the fight for broader tolerance and acceptance of individuals of all types. We should come with a message not just more tolerance for a particular community, but that we want to include everyone in the greater community of individuals who can participate in social and economic institutions to all our benefit. We must make real front line efforts to advance these values through education and volunteering, and help craft the norms that make society wealthier economically and socially.