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Article posted Aug 12 2013, 6:34 AM Category: Commentary Source: Logan Albright Print

Social Pressure as a Means of Keeping Order

by Logan Albright

We tend to think of the law as one, big monolithic thing, a unified system under which we all must live. The rules governing what we can and cannot do may change over time, but the system itself is a constant, maintained by a centralized body of enforcers. Force is the operative term here, because the threat of force is really the only weapon the law has at its disposal to curb behaviors it deems undesirable. Break the law and you will either be fined, imprisoned or, in extreme cases, killed.

We have become conditioned to think that this threat of force is the only possible way of keeping order in a society, and that since force is such a dangerous thing, we must restrict who can legitimately use it. Thus, the state monopoly on law is built on the assumption that law and force are necessarily and inextricably intertwined. In fact, there is no reason to make such an assumption.

How, then, are we to enforce the laws of the land without the threat of violence? The answer, which can be found quite readily throughout history, and is still in use in a diluted form today, is simple social pressure from the members of the community. While this may sound laughable to some, it is a powerful force not to be underestimated, and has succeeded at keeping order with surprising success in the past.

A colorful example comes from England, where the term Rough Music was once used to describe a practice of community members banding together to drive out those who violated their social norms by banging pots and pans together in a symbolic ritual of humiliation and eventual expulsion. Shunning among the Amish is a comparable example.

Similar practices, albeit less dramatic, persist to this day in any area where there is a strong sense of community. Neighborhood associations use social pressure to enforce certain norms, with offenders suffering the vocal disapproval of their neighbors. It is important to remember that this is not vigilantism, where an individuals initiates force to seek personal justice, but rather a form of collective behavior towards the offender that in no way violates his rights. Instead of force, ostracization inflicts feelings of shame, guilt and isolation on those who refuse to obey the mores of the group. If the offense is great enough, others may refuse to do business with the offender entirely, eventually forcing him to leave the community altogether.

Apart from its non-violence, the method of keeping order via peer pressure has the advantage of being highly decentralized. Every community will have its own code of conduct, allowing people to sort themselves into areas which share their own set of values and principles. An atheist libertine need not be held to the standard of a conservative Christian community. An immigrant from China can choose to live in a community that upholds the customs of his heritage. There is no one-size-fits-all standard of behavior which inevitably fails to take into account cultural and philosophical differences within the population.

The obvious objection to this line of thinking is that social pressure is all well and good for small towns and isolated populations, but that in big cities there is simply no way for people to know each other well enough to enforce a standard of behavior as a group. This is a fair point, but the existence of tight-knit communities within large cities Chinatowns or other immigrant groups are the most common example show that a large population alone is not sufficient to render social pressure ineffective. I have written elsewhere about the fact that government welfare programs discourage the formation of communities, since the threat of misfortune can be met with a welfare check in place of the support of friends, neighbors, relatives and churches. In the absence of such programs, it would behoove ever prudent individual to develop some form of community as a type of insurance against hardship, in which case social pressure becomes a very effective means of behavioral control.

Of course, there are some crimes and some criminals for whom social pressure would be wholly inadequate. Those individuals mad enough to commit murders or rapes doubtless have little fear of what the neighbors might think. In such cases, force is indeed required, and punishment remains a legitimate province of the law (which still need not be monopolistic in nature, but that's a topic for another time.) However, for all the sorts of minor offenses that fill law books and clog up court systems, it seems entirely preferable to adopt a decentralized, non-coercive method of punishment that relies upon the human need for social interaction and the approval of one's peers instead of the cold impersonality of a prison cell.
Logan Albright is a writer and economist in Washington, DC.

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