Wednesday, April 17, 2013 | 7 comments

Promoting Culture at the Point of a Gun

By Connor Boyack

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Culture is important. It shapes our general societal standards, it guides our behavior, and it establishes certain expectations we have of one another in our various interactions. It allows our history to influence our present and direct our future. It is a reflection of our ideals.

And government should have nothing to do with it.

Culture is largely organic, undefined by any central apparatus. It is modified through the collective actions and attitudes of the masses. It is the societal counterpart to the state’s top-down, arbitrary set of laws which are enforced by the few upon the many.

The government exists to protect life, liberty, and property. It can only legitimately operate with authority it has been delegated by the individuals who comprise it. Because no one person has the moral authority to impose and enforce his cultural standards upon his neighbor, he cannot petition a third party to do so on his behalf.

Culture is properly promoted and even “enforced” only through non-coercive means such as persuasion and even peer pressure. To empower the state to help define and enforce such standards is to promote an ideal at the point of a gun, for all government is force.

The state’s stranglehold over alcohol distribution and consumption in Utah is an excellent example of this exact problem. Proponents of restrictive alcohol laws argue that they are necessary to ensure that the “culture” in Utah remains one in which the consumption of alcohol is minimized, and children are spared the sight of an alcoholic beverage being prepared. They therefore endorse locking people in a cage or beating them over the head (should they affirm their rights and refuse to comply) who disagree with their cultural ideals and wish to pursue their own definition of happiness, however misguided it may be.

Violence in such cases is not justified. Coercion is acceptable only in situations where somebody’s rights are being violated, or about to be violated, and a defensive action is necessary to repel the threat. The state can only be empowered to use violence in cases where individuals themselves would be justified in doing so.

Would a restaurant patron be justified in punching his server in the face, or handcuffing him to the table, for mixing an alcoholic drink in sight of the child he brought with him? Clearly not. We therefore cannot approve of the state doing similar things on his behalf, even if they start more benignly as fines and permit revocations. Ultimately, the government backs its softer actions with the barrel of a gun.

Laws exist not to educate people about how they should behave, but to punish injustice and protect individual rights. Relying on the government to educate citizens about their own culture is like asking the mob to make sure people go to church each week. Contrary to some conservative opinions, the state’s agents are not justified in acting as sentinels to force people to become their “better selves” in an effort to “help shape the order of a free society.”

The problem with empowering the state to promote and enforce culture is that the centralization of this authority creates an ongoing contest wherein warring factions whose cultures clash with one another each attempt to wrest control of the state in order to enforce their definition of culture upon everybody else. Keeping the state out of the culture war will decentralize this conflict and allow competing ideals to achieve popular support in the marketplace of ideas on the strength of their merits rather than the strength of the state’s muscle.



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About the Author

Connor Boyack is president of Libertas Institute. He is the author of several books on politics and religion, including the Tuttle Twins series for children.


5 comments
Jeremy J Lyman
Jeremy J Lyman

Derek,Watch this: http://www.tomwoods.com/blog/libertarian-anarchy-against-the-state/#.UWYqdAWZPsg Your entire paradigm is colored by the only thing you've ever experienced, which is the assumption that the state must enforce statutory laws with the threat of force (to make sure people yield to pedestrians, stop at red lights, and respect contractual obligations) or that those norms would be impossible to establish. Of course, this isn't true.  I've driven on many private roads and in private neighborhoods where the local police have no authority to enforce traffic laws.  Everyone in the neighborhood knows this, and somehow they magically stop at stop signs and yield to pedestrians.  I've spent a lot of time driving around on private ranches, with miles and miles of private roads and, amazingly enough, everyone drives on the right side of the road and there aren't car accidents around every corner because government isn't there to enforce statutory laws. You're probably right when you say, "The sun will continue to shine, and government and the law will continue to influence (and be influenced by) culture." And that's a shame. 

Derek Monson
Derek Monson

Connor,

 

Your comments about culture and law demonstrate one of the problems with libertarian thinking: its refusal to acknowledge reality.  As an illustration, let's take your descriptions of culture and see how they apply to the law. 

 

You say culture "shapes our general societal standards."  But the law influences our general social standards.  For example, society maintains a general standard on the roads of "yield to pedestrians" because the law sets and enforces that standard.

 

You say culture "guides our behavior." But the law also creates guides for our behavior.  Again, using the traffic example, one reason people behave the way they do when they come to a red light or a stop sign is because the law guides them to that behavior (i.e. people don't want to get a traffic ticket, even when it is clear they won't hurt anyone by running the red light).

 

You say culture "establishes certain expectations we have of one another in our various interactions." But the law influences those expectations. For example, one reason a business expects their contracts with another business to be fulfilled is because they know contract law requires such agreements to be fulfilled, and punishes those who do not fulfill them.

 

In other words, government (or the law) influences culture, and vice versa, whether you want it to or not. That is simply a reality of human social existence. So to say that government should "having nothing to do with" culture is like saying "the sun should stop shining." You can hold that opinion if you want, of course, but it is pure fantasy...wholly detached from reality. The sun will continue to shine, and government and the law will continue to influence (and be influenced by) culture.

 

So the reality-based question for those concerned with protecting freedom is: what kind of culture best supports freedom, and when (and how) should the law step in to support that culture? That is the only freedom-based frame of mind that makes any sense when it comes to issues of culture.

 

Derek Monson

cboyack
cboyack moderator

"Your comments about culture and law demonstrate one of the problems with libertarian thinking: its refusal to acknowledge reality."


This is an immensely boring and worn out criticism of libertarianism. It's like saying that Christ's commandment to be perfect is a "refusal to acknowledge reality" about fallen man and our sinful ways.

"You say culture 'shapes our general societal standards.' But the law influences our general social standards."

My point is not that valid law does not influence behavior -- clearly it does. My point is that behavior which does not violate another person's rights should be "shaped" (influenced) only through persuasive, non-governmental means.

"For example, society maintains a general standard on the roads of 'yield to pedestrians' because the law sets and enforces that standard."

Do you argue that in absence of such a law, motorists would be careless about hitting a pedestrian in front of them? Or that it's inherently wrong for pedestrians to instead yield to motorists? This can be handled organically without the need of central planning, as is evidenced by this example  among others.


"Again, using the traffic example, one reason people behave the way they do when they come to a red light or a stop sign is because the law guides them to that behavior..."


I've already conceded that valid laws will influence behavior, and that that's not a good thing. What you appear to be avoiding is the discussion regarding what valid laws are, and whether the state can justifiably exercise authority that individuals themselves do not have. The state owns the roads, and therefore they can set the rules regarding how drivers should operate upon them. The state does not own restaurants, on the other hand, and therefore has no authority to require that they erect visible barriers in order to shield children from the sight of an alcoholic drink being prepared.

"For example, one reason a business expects their contracts with another business to be fulfilled is because they know contract law requires such agreements to be fulfilled, and punishes those who do not fulfill them."

And contract law is completely valid law. This is not at all comparable to the state imposing restrictions about mixing drinks, which is not based on any individual authority that can be delegated.

"So to say that government should 'having nothing to do with' culture is like saying 'the sun should stop shining.'"

It would perhaps help to better define what we mean by culture. I have agreed that one's standards and/or actions are influenced by valid laws. (They're even influenced by invalid laws.) But the culture to which I refer is more the type used by Mero and other conservatives, that of social culture to which pertain things like marriage, alcohol, pornography, drug use, profanity, vulgarity, fidelity, charity, etc.

"So the reality-based question for those concerned with protecting freedom is: what kind of culture best supports freedom, and when (and how) should the law step in to support that culture?"

I disagree. The more important question is not when and how, but if the law should step in to "support" any given culture. Of course, it depends on how narrowly you define culture, which is why "culture" is an ineffective barometer upon which to base such a judgment. Instead, the law (as Bastiat explained so well in a book your organization recommends to others) must be confined only to punishing injustice, or in other words, protecting life, liberty, and property.

The societal, cultural, and moral interests inherent in modern social conservatism should be pursued only through persuasion, as they fall far outside that narrow scope. Again, the state must not be used to enforce "laws" that have no underlying individual authority. Such is the case with the Zion Wall.

jpv
jpv

Politics is about the proper role of violence in society, nothing more or less. 

 

If you feel justified in threatening to kill your neighbor or throw him in a cage at gunpoint because he's operating a Mr. Coffee that you feel would be culturally and morally reprehensible to partake of such. 

 

If you don't have the right to do that, you don't have the right to delegate it to agents of government to do the same to other who partake of substances you find immoral.

Derek Monson
Derek Monson

Connor,

 

I'm going to endeavor to respond to the aspects of your response that pertain to my point - that the premise behind your argument is flawed and not grounded in reality. While I appreciate your concern for in-depth analysis and questioning of the illustrations, they distract somewhat from the broader argument, so I'll leave those issues for another time and place.

 

Far be it from me to bore you, but what you call "boring" is one of the fundamental differences between the ideas of Conservatism and Libertarianism. The former views the world through the lens of the realities of human nature and human social existence, while the latter views the world through a lens of a theoretical individual, stripped of any of the social relationships that define him, balanced against his government - a philosophical fantasy that has never existed, and never will exist. That may bore you, but it's pretty important for serious students of political thinking and ideas.

 

Your Biblical criticism also misses the point. For Christians (and particularly Mormons), Christ's teaching to be perfect can realistically be achieved, though it may require more than our mortal lifetimes to do so. But my point is that the premise of your argument - that government and law should have "nothing to do" with culture - is grounded in a philosophical fantasy that has never existed in reality and never will, either in this life or the next (e.g. the "Kingdom of God," as a kingdom, still has eternal laws that influence our standards, behaviors, and expectations concerning social relationships).

 

Defining "culture" as "social culture" doesn't change anything. Government and law also affect "social culture" as a matter a human social existence - they always have and they always will.

 

At the risk of sending you off on another tangential analysis, let's use something you point out as an aspect of social culture: marriage. The government's definition of "marriage" (and divorce law, for that matter) influences societal standards, behavior, and expectations toward marriage and family life - in other words, it influences "social culture," as you've defined it. As just one illustration, it does so by giving schools implicit (or explicit, where it has been litigated) permission to teach children about (and therefore influence their expectations and behavior towards) what is "normal and healthy" in regards to marital and family relations. We've seen this actually play out in states where they've approved "gay marriage."

 

But let's say government simply stopped recognizing ANY definition of marriage - presumably the libertarian "getting government out of culture" policy. Schools would then either: 1) continue to teach what they wanted about "normal and healthy" marriages and family life - influencing social standards, behaviors, and expectations toward marriage and family life, or 2) stop teaching anything about "normal and healthy" marriages and family life, sending the message that "normal and healthy" marriage and family life doesn't matter enough to learn about in school and/or it's really whatever you want to make of it, and thereby influencing social standards, behaviors, and expectations toward marriage and family life, or "social culture."

 

No matter how you slice it, there is no reality wherein government and law do not influence culture. The influence and connection of law on culture (and culture on law) do exist, and they always will.  That is simple reality...a reality that libertarians fail to grasp, with important implications for public policy, which makes it an important point worth considering, even if it is "boring" to some.

 

As a final aside, having been a co-worker with Paul Mero for the last six years, I can honestly say that you don't understand what he means when he says "culture"...it's not simply the "social culture" you limit it to.  Culture for Sutherland has a "social issue" context, certainly, which we refer to often because of its broader importance for society, but if you consider our every use of that term to be limited to the way in which you've defined it, it will only lead to confusion about what we mean when we talk about culture.

 

Derek Monson

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