In his NRO column yesterday, Jonah fretted that right-wingers both for and against federal regulation of spam were ignoring the centrality of culture. The pro-regulation people had too much faith in the feds, the antis in the free market. He writes, “Most socially unacceptable behavior is not solved by government action or pure self-interested, free-market consumer choice. It’s solved by social pressure: shaming people, refusing to deal with them in polite company, encouraging boycotts, creating formal or informal associations which refuse to do business with certain individuals.” He concludes, “If the Right comes around to the position that only the government has the authority or the ability to solve a real social problem and that a real social problem is defined as any problem the government can solve, then we are in big trouble. It would signal that conservatives have given up on trying to improve the culture and uphold the authority of tradition. In short, it means that conservatives will have given up on conservatism.”
I agree with Jonah’s concluding point, but have two qualifications. 1) What’s the application to spam? I think it highly unlikely that we are going to shame them into not spamming. Judging from what’s in my inbox, these people are immune to shame. I suppose if you ran into someone at a cocktail party who said he spammed for a living, you could walk away. But generally “shaming” implies sterner stuff.
2) I wouldn’t make too sharp a distinction between the market and the culture; in fact, I’m not sure I would think about “the free market” as an institution so much as what people do when their property rights are respected. Sometimes, the way to mobilize cultural pressures is to use the free market. Boycotts are a form of free-market behavior (a point Jonah slides past by positing that such behavior has to be “self interested,” and in a narrow way at that). Or take the policy prescription Charles Murray outlined a dozen years ago on how to win the drug war. He advocated making it easier for people to discriminate against drug users in both housing and employment markets, and suggested that drugs also be legalized. In other words, he sought to replace state coercion with less formal social pressures that might, in practice, be tougher on drug users. My point is not that this is a good or a bad idea–it’s that it would clearly be both pro-free-market and a “cultural” response to drug use.