Once more, against moralism in community

Legal moralists worry about the degradation of social norms and community connections. Their worry is that immorality tears at the “fabric of society” where that “fabric,” presumably, is the system of moral beliefs held in common by most people in the community.  Legal moralists are thus happy to impose their own moral views on others with the power of government—they think that this must be done if the norms (and moral beliefs commonly held) are threatened. 

In their willingness to use government power to impose their views of morality, moralists ignore the fact that when a government is empowered to force people to act in certain ways, that power crowds out the ability of individuals to interact freely with one another. That is a problem for their view because if individuals can’t freely choose to act in ways others (including the moralists) think is bad, they also can’t freely choose to act in ways others (again, including the moralists) think is good.  The problem for the moralist, then, is that you can’t have a morally good community if people can’t choose freely—you could at best have a simulacrum of such, more like a collection of automatons than a community of persons.  A morally good community is an association of moral beings—beings that choose for themselves—who (often) freely choose the good.  Putting this a different way, the moralist has to believe you can have a community made top down, forced upon members who are free, but that is impossible.  Community thus has to be made bottom-up; community is made by the individuals within it choosing to interact well together.

This applies, by the way, regardless of the level or size of community.  A condo or homeowners association, for example, can’t be made into a genuine community by fiat—even if those trying to do so take themselves to know (or actually do know!) what is best for everyone.  It simply cannot work—or rather cannot work unless everyone in the group agrees—in which case, it is not top down after all.  

To be clear: if you want to start a genuine community, do so only with people who already agree with you.  (Like, but not necessarily as rigid as, a cult.)  I’d add that if you want the community to remain a community, you’ll need a way to guarantee that all who enter it agree with you in advance.  (Again, like, but not necessarily as rigid as, a cult.) Otherwise, you’ll face opposition from some of the newcomers—different ideas about what the community should be.  And those ideas from newcomers (at least those who enter justly), will have just as much claim to be legitimate as yours.  Denying that entails not community, but moralist dictatorship.

Moral appeals in times of scarcity

The New York Times recently reports there is a developing cooking oil shortage. The subhead to the article reads: “Several British supermarkets have joined other chains around the world in asking shoppers to limit their cooking oil purchases, as supplies dwindle and prices rise.” Before reading the article I wondered if this sort of request of consumers risked being naive and counterproductive. After reading it, I am still unsure.

Basic economics typically says that the most efficient way to allocate resources is through the price mechanism. Prices send important signals to producers and consumers about the availability of and need for goods and services. As prices rise and fall, producers and consumers can often adjust their behavior. Consumers can change how much and what they consume. Producers can see opportunities for profit and bring more or different goods to the market.

Sometimes people refer to prices as one way to “ration” goods. This isn’t quite right. Rationing supposes some deliberate allocation mechanism. Prices, on the other hand, typically respond to market signals, not the dictates of some bureaucrat.

Critics will insist that prices assign opportunities to access goods to people in just the way that any government rationing does. I’d dispute this, but instead of quibbling over meanings of terms, consider more neutrally the merits of certain ways of allocating goods.

Wartime era rationing is one way to allocate scarce goods. Another example is first-come, first-served, such as in queuing. Alternatively or in addition, there might be per-purchase or per-person limits.

Queuing is a way to allocate goods because only people with the resource of time will get access. America’s national parks now experience historic levels of demand. There are often caps on the number of daily visitors. People gain entry only by investing the time to show up early and wait in line.

Another way to allocate goods is by per-person limits. Consider how Ticketmaster restricts concert ticket purchases. During the pandemic, in the USA many stores allowed consumers to purchase only so many packages of toilet paper. This supposedly prevents resellers from buying all available products and cornering the market.

Should there be non-price-based restrictions on cooking oil purchases? For some people, cooking oil is a type of good they use to satisfy their basic food needs. Their demand for cooking oil might not be especially “elastic.” Their needs for it don’t always respond to price signals as readily as their needs for other goods. The significance of oil for many consumers might partly explain why some providers use moral exhortation. The New York Times article includes a photo showing a sign a British grocer had posted, which read, “So that everyone can get what they need – we’re limiting these products to 3 per customer.” This notice explains the store’s policy and might help inspire people to conserve.

If there are no per-purchase caps, it might seem only the rich would get to eat. So, perhaps we should applaud some British merchants who restrict sales in order that people have “fair” access. Moral appeals might seem to help here since people are reluctant to have prices do all the signals for allocating goods. Such moral appeals, one might say, encourage people to conserve.

I doubt scarce goods in such circumstances become more accessible by wishing and pleading. Of course, my hunch is vulnerable to being overturned by data: perhaps those moral appeals have effects at the margins. After all, such appeals seem to encourage many people to bear the costs and inconvenience of recycling. Perhaps too, with cooking oil, sellers can make moral appeals to a sense of civic solidarity to ensure adequate access to scarce sunflower oil.

Still, I worry such limits, combined with moral appeals, mask naive understandings of economics. These measures risk backfiring. Telling people a store is rationing goods is often a surefire way to inspire panicked buying.

Consider again what happened with toilet paper. As soon as stores imposed limits during the pandemic, there were runs on toilet paper. Many families joined others in the US in hoarding it. They did this not because they needed to have over one hundred fifty rolls available, but to fend off shortages in light of people who threatened supplies with panicked buying. In other words, many people overbought out of fear that other people were overbuying. The same routinely happens in the US south when snow storms are in the forecast. People hit the grocery stores to stock up on bread, milk, eggs, and beer (and… not necessarily in that order). If the store caps how much people may buy of such staples, people will often buy up to the limit and encourage family members to do the same. A week or two later, many people are pouring spoiled milk down the drain. So my first worry about these limits is that they inspire panicked buying and exacerbate any shortages there might otherwise be. If a store adds a moral appeal, we must ask whether that’s the most effective way of getting people to allocate resources “fairly.”

Many families would not overbuy if prices had risen to reflect increased demand. If each toilet paper roll were $50, they would curtail consumption and purchasing. It then seems that price signals might be a more effective signal than any per-purchase caps. It might also be more effective than moral appeals.

People might say that increasing prices is inappropriate because high prices clash with “fair” access. Alternatively, they might say, per-purchase caps secure such “fair” access. They might say: surely everyone should have fair access to wiping their fannies in times of scarcity. After all, they might add, demand for toilet paper is inelastic. You’ve got to wipe!

This is false. Demand for many goods people regard as essential is often somewhat elastic. This is true even with toilet paper. Consider how you’d change usage patterns if each roll were $100 or $500. You’d use less. You’d consider substitutes. You can (and many people did) buy a bidet, such as from this seller, which I promote for free only because I like the name.

I don’t dispute the effectiveness of moral appeals in some cases. Whole blood donation in the US provides some evidence. Blood donation drives exhort people to help the sick and needy. Compensation for donors is merely free juice and cookies afterwards. For the most part, in the USA there is an adequate and safe blood available. (But see a related recent book by fellow blogger James Stacey Taylor, giving a compelling defense of paid plasma donations.)

I remain worried that certain moral appeals risk cheapening moral discourse. (See related discussions by Tosi/Warmke.) They risk making morality an empty exhortation, especially when is a better alternative: the merchant could raise the price.

Some merchants won’t do that. It’d be bad PR. Consider a local hardware store in a small town when a rare snowstorm is on the horizon. One might think that’d be a great opportunity to raise prices on shovels and ice-melting salt. Many won’t raise their prices, though. They know that if they do so, it’ll sour their reputation within the community. In that case, one can imagine the owner refusing to sell anyone more than one shovel. The owner might think it’s more important that more people in the community have access to shovels.

Offering moral appeals in certain cases of scarcity seems to undermine the signaling function prices provide. Indeed, offering moral appeals seems to undermine the point of the moral appeals. When prices do not reflect supply and demand, producers lack the information they need to know how to shift production and distribution. But it’s also a problem for consumers. Consider the standpoint of a consumer who wants to allocate their family’s scarce resources carefully and plan responsibly for the future. Suppose that consumer wants not to deprive others of fair opportunities to access important goods. Without appropriate price signals, that consumer might not know what to do. They want their family to have toilet paper (or cooking oil, or milk, or gasoline, or eggs, or whatever), and they might want others to have appropriate opportunities to gain similar access. But the sign on the British grocer’s shelf doesn’t tell them how important it is to, or the extent to which they should, constrain their choices. Prices give even better information in most circumstances.

Ultimately, it might best be left to merchants to decide how to price their goods and what message to send. Some messages risk inspiring greater panicked buying. They also risk undermining the appropriate force of moral reasons.

Prices convey plenty of information. Substituting or adding moral appeals risks making scarcities worse and risks cheapening the value of moral appeals.

What happened?

It’s a bad week. Polarization has lead to a federal truth commission (thank you Dems) and the likely removal of federal protection for reproductive freedom (thank you Reps). Neither of these, so far as we know, is popular. A working democracy of Americans would be unlikely to bring about either. But we don’t seem to have that—or at least not to the extent that we might have thought. In part, this is because of the way discourse in our society has deteriorated. Discourse in our society is, to say the least, strained.

Given how strained our discourse has become, some would prefer to have less of it, walking away from those they disagree with and encouraging others to do the same. In Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, finds it encouraging that roughly 56 percent of Americans seem to believe it “better for people to have good manners” than to “express what they really think” (76) and claims that civility suggests meals are “not the best venue for political debate” (79). On my view, by contrast, people too frequently censor themselves rather than engage in conversation with someone they think wrong about an issue. I think this horribly unfortunate, even if understandable. I think it is understandable because of the way many of us are raised. I think it unfortunate because it leads predictably to a loss of discourse that would promote a more civil society. When people don’t engage in civil discourse with each other, it’s too easy for people to live in ideological bubbles, too likely that people will be unable to even engage with those they disagree with, and too easy for those with power to ignore the wishes of the rest. I want to suggest one cause and possible corrective of this situation.

As children, when we visit extended family or friends, many of us are told not to mention religion or politics, Uncle Bill’s drinking, Aunt Suzie’s time in prison, or any number of other family “secrets” or disagreements. Those subject to these parental restrictions learn not to discuss anything controversial, including serious social issues and our own values. The lesson many seem to take from this is that it is impolite and disrespectful to disagree with others. It is hard for me to think this has not contributed to the polarization and rancor in our society. Because we are trained, from an early age, to censor ourselves and repress conversation about a wide array of topics, it’s not surprising that many are shocked when someone disagrees with them—we are taught not to disagree or even suggest a topic of conversation about which there is likely to be disagreement, so people are naturally surprised when others do precisely that. They think it rude. Given the surprise, moreover, many make no attempt to provide a reasoned response to someone who says something they disagree with or find distasteful. This is a mistake.

The problem may be worse than simple parental limits. As a culture, we seem committed to social separation. Not only do we actively and explicitly discourage children from having honest conversations (which join us with others), but we also seek to set up our lives so that we have more distance from each other—even our immediate family members. People complain about the rising cost of homes, but in real dollars, the cost per square foot of a home has not increased that much (see this). Home costs have increased largely because we insist on larger homes—homes where we have our own bathrooms, our own bedrooms, our own offices. With all of that space, we are away from our loved ones, leaving us able to avoid difficult conversations with even our closest intimates. We don’t have to negotiate for time in the shower, for use of the television, or much of anything else. We don’t have to discuss things we disagree about. (And, of course, Americans tend to think that once a child graduates from high school they ought to move out—again, allowing that those almost-adult children can avoid dealing with their parents, learning how to deal with them when they disagree. And when they “talk,” they now do so by texting—furthering the distance from what would be allowed by face to face, or at least, phone, conversations.) In all, we insist on and get more—more space, more privacy, more isolation. We also sort ourselves—moving to neighborhoods and jobs where others that agree with us live and work. We spend less and less time with people we disagree with And then we are surprised that we don’t know how to deal with such people.

So much for the social criticism. That is, I submit, one of the causes of our current lack of civil discourse (and thus increased polarization). If that is right, the solution should be straightforward: stop taking steps that discourage children from engaging in honest discussion. Make children share a bathroom so that they at least have to negotiate its use with a sibling. Maybe have them share a bedroom too! Really importantly, stop telling children not to discuss certain topics with others. Let them learn from others, let others learn from them. (And obviously, those of us teaching in college should seek to promote discussion of ideologically diverse views, even views that some find offensive.) We need to be offended when young so that we don’t refuse to engage with others we find offensive when we are adults. We would then be prepared for honest civil discourse.