One of the attendees of my church growing up, Humboldt Ford was something of a local big to-do. He was a black man that had to overcome a lot to get where he got. Raised in the South, in order to get an appointment to a military academy he had to get an endorsement from a congressperson from the midwest. He made an interesting point about his experiences in the South and in the North. He said that being in the North made him a lot more nervous when he was younger. Why? Because in the South, as unacceptable as the rules were, he knew what they were. With gritted teeth, he could follow them. He knew what restrooms to use. He knew what he could and could not say. In the North, a lot of people had a lot more liberal attitudes and he could do a lot more. The problem was that the rules would be unevenly applied and what was acceptable in one place would get him hurled epithets and threats in another. So he ended up following the rules of the South wherever he was.

The above story should not be considered an apology for the South. On the whole, we had to reach the inconsistency of the North as a middle ground to minorities being able to do everything they’re rightfully allowed to do today.

Rather, it reminds me of some of the values of social norms. The most obvious value is when they encourage good behavior. Few would contest that there is value in that except to the extent to which we can agree what “good behavior” consists of. Norms also hold great value in those with the influence to be able to set them. I mean, you get to tell people to do what you want! But sometimes the norms are pretty neutral. Or they can be extremely negative, grossly unfair validating behavior that should be unacceptable. But when that’s the case, the problems are with the norms themselves instead of their existence.

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? What about those norms, however, that are either completely arbitrary or difficult to really justify on an objective basis? Those kinds of these where we look at the people trying to enforce them and want to say “Oh, come on, just deal.”

When Mom was raised, it was common for young ladies to go to finishing school where they would learn how properly to be a lady. A good portion of the instruction there involves teaching things that are, in the end, of pretty minimal importance. The objective rationale for never putting your elbows on the table or holding your fork just so are pretty weak.

Fashion norms are themselves are often completely arbitrary. How should you dress? Well it changes from one decade (or shorter) to the next. We judge one another on how we dress not by any objective criteria but rather by how it fits in to a bunch of arbitrary norms. Middle-aged conservative folks see a kid with a dog collar and role their eyes even though a collar is objectively not much different from a necklace. And the kid wears the collar precisely because she wants to be seen that way (whether she admits it or not). All of these communications take place because of shared norms. Arbitrary ones.

In the last half-century or so, there has been a gradual shift away from respecting cultural norms and considering their arbitrariness to be a reason to ignore them. Society obviously has not succeeded in this venture, as the collar demonstrates, but significant headway has been made.

This benefits the individual insofar as they can look, dress, and act as they prefer with far less harassment than they might have seen in yesteryear. This is the upside. The downside, however, is that with loosened cultural norms, it becomes much more difficult for people to know how to behave in the most socially acceptable way. It creates a sort of chaotic landscape.

Dressing and acting however you want, even when you’re not hurting anyone else, will never be entirely okay. There will always be a segment of the population that wants its norms. There will always be a segment of the population that considers what they and those around them do – whatever they and those around them do – to be normal. These are variations as to what has always been the case.

But one thing that is done is that in a void of shared, arbitrary norms of acceptable behavior, acceptable behavior can be conveniently defined and redefined and enforced in an even more arbitrary manner. So in the old way of thinking, wearing a hat indoors was impolite. In the new way of thinking, it’s polite. Until someone you don’t like does it, then you can suddenly decide to enforce that norm as you talk about him behind his back with a bunch of friends that can’t really remember or don’t care that they have done the same. And even if it’s pointed out to them, they can draw whatever arbitrary distinctions that they want.

At least when society draws its arbitrary norms and distinctions, it’s something collectively agreed upon by a group of (granted, wholly unrepresentative) people. People can write a book about it. People that want to know what to do in “polite company” can read that book. It can be taught in finishing school. While these norms were typically written by the privileged, it gave the outsiders an opportunity to learn and abide by them. They probably wouldn’t get it right, but they could try.

In a world where arbitrary norms are derided, they rules can be written and rewritten as often as is convenient for the keep the walls as erected as possible between acceptable people doing acceptable things and unacceptable people doing unacceptable things. Dressing correctly shifts away from standards that can be adhered to and be defined entirely by who is and is not engaging in them. By the time people far down the social pole get word, you can change it all over again. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as communication has increased, fashion not-quite-norms shift faster and faster to the point that it’s impossible to keep up.

By and large, chaos benefits the powerful. Kids in black and red shirts saying “ANARCHY RULEZ!” are often the very losers who would fare the worst in a more anarchic environment. Rather than creating an environment where the norms of the least among us would be regarded as just as legitimate as those among the most powerful, it creates a system where acceptable behavior is defined precisely around who is doing what. Even if there are no right and wrong things, people will make darn sure there are right and wrong people.

We can’t bring down barriers and norms until and unless we can actually get people on board. When being considered too judgmental (even and especially on arbitrary things) is a bad thing, you get people that quietly judge (which is unfair to the judged because they don’t even know how they are falling short) and you get those that make a big point of judging to be disagreeable and to register their protest at their preferred state of affairs being challenged. The latter folks are often asshats by nature, thus further silencing the first group.

Of course, when a social norm is affirmatively wrong and needs to be challenged, you have to plow forward. It’s hard to argue that a period in time where Humboldt Ford doesn’t entirely know how to act isn’t worth it for Hum Ford to accept a high-level appointment in the administration of the first black president. When a social norm is affirmatively right, it should be defended. In the in between, though? Sometimes having arbitrary-but-harmless rules is better than not.

Category: Coffeehouse

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9 Responses to Arbitrary Norms

  1. PeterW says:

    This echoes a core intuition of mine: that many forms of ostensible egalitarianism in practice merely lead to an equally steep hierarchy that is just less transparent. Status seeking may well be conserved, and if people drop out of the race to buy a BMW, the result is not equality but a reversion to Darwinian competition on beauty and social dominance.

    More from Tyler Cowen:

  2. Fred says:

    “When Mom was raised, it was common for young ladies to go to finishing school where they would learn how properly to be a lady. A good portion of the instruction there involves teaching things that are, in the end, of pretty minimal importance. The objective rationale for never putting your elbows on the table or holding your fork just so are pretty weak.”

    Actually these norms were very important because they were tied to social class and potential marriage partners. The higher the social class, the easier for men to find marriage partners, but the harder for women to find suitable marriage partners. Because of the norms taught to young women in a finishing school, it was easy to determine if a young man was dating someone of his social class or not.

  3. trumwill says:

    PW, if not a less transparent criteria, then at least a different one where they stack up better. You can bet that a whole lot of the people rolling their eyes at people buying flashy cars make sure to get a Prius rather than a Civic Hybrid.

  4. trumwill says:

    Fred, there were other reasons that they were important, too. For Mom’s family, I think the push came more from being from a family with money but not having much money themselves (my great2-grandfather was famous and wealthy, his inheritance was split and handled inequitably). It was part of an effort to stay in the world that my grandmother was born into rather than falling downward.

    Anyway, when I say “not important” I am talking about objective importance. These things can be quite socially important. But a lot of the customs were in place not because they were objectively better (or much objectively better), but because society had decided that they were important.

  5. Mike Hunt says:


    Sorry. Wrong Norm. Never mind.

  6. Maria says:

    Finishing school didn’t just teach etiquette and genteel manners. They taught things like poise and social skills like the art of making small talk. All of which I have developed a heathly respect for, having zero to no social skills myself.

    I’d go to a grown-up version of a finishing school if I found the time and the money.

  7. ? says:

    A minor, though perhaps generalizable, example of the pain caused by “dropping” social norms is the institution known as “casual Friday”. I read that professional women find this hard to navigate, given their desire to avoid dressing like secretaries.

    It probably won’t surprise that I don’t find even “unjust” social norms especially problematic, under certain conditions: that the norms are well known, evolve slowly, and the right of exit is meaningful.

  8. Maria says:

    There aren’t any secretaries in the office world anymore so that is actually not a fear of many professional women.

  9. SFG says:

    What, there are no *administrative assistants*? I wonder how much of the name change was the usual title inflation and how much was that movie with Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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