Still, I think it is unwise to dismiss altogether the case for group loyalty and adherence to group norms. My inclination is to approve of organizations that promote group objectives and attempt to limit individual choices, as long as participation in these organizations is voluntary. However, within libertarian thought, there are very different points of view as to whether or not the pressure to conform to group norms is morally justified.

This is from Arnold Kling’s new essay, “Libertarians and Group Norms.”

In this excellent essay, Arnold considers the various ways that classical liberals from Adam Smith on have thought about group norms and social pressure. The whole thing is worth reading.

Arnold quotes my favorite passage from Tocqueville. [I should add that maybe it’s my favorite only because I’ve never been able to get through Tocqueville’s whole book and I’ve tried three times. I’m not saying that this is Tocqueville’s fault. It could well be mine.] Anyway, here’s the quote:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, [intellectual,] serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones; Americans associate to celebrate holidays, establish seminaries, build inns, erect churches, distribute books, send missionaries to the Antipodes; in this way they create hospitals, prisons, schools. If, finally, it is a matter of bringing truth to light or of developing a sentiment with the support of a good example, they associate. Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.

The differences between Canada, where I grew up, and the United States, to which I moved at age 21, are subtle, but I noticed this American tendency to form voluntary organizations quickly when I moved here.

Some further highlights:

My conclusion is not that libertarians should give up our idea of what constitutes good social philosophy. I am not saying that we should repent and henceforth worship at the altar of the state.

What I am saying is that we should not become wedded to the view that the world we want is one in which irrational group attachments have been completely eradicated from the human psyche. Yes, this capacity for group attachment is manifest in state-worship that we find troubling. But group norms are a fundamental component of human nature. We probably owe a debt of gratitude to the part of human behavior that becomes irrationally attached to groups and to group norm enforcement.

It may be that the role of libertarians is to point out that political demagogues are exploiting the tribal loyalty instincts of citizens against their better interests, as is typically the case. But it may be neither realistic nor desirable to “educate” people in order that they should lose all sense of group attachment, including attachment to the state.