Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Conservatives love to talk about norms, morals, and the like. They are right to do so: our national malaise can be largely explained as a consequence of decaying and declining mores. But they focus on the wrong ones; typically high-minded conservatives like to talk about marriage and crime (the low-minded conservatives take the same material and indict scary minorities).

There are a number of striking statistics whose best explanation are norms. The filibuster, for one: it wasn’t in fashion to do and then it was. And so the federales are paralyzed. For another, Medicare: there are a number of counties and states and localities (e.g. McAllen, TX in this brilliant Atul Gawande article) which spend more on their patients for no reason other than greed (or what an economist might call rationality). Again, like the Senate, we tried to hold the members of that profession to a higher ethical standard that in many ways isn’t being fulfilled.* You can continue with the examples: finance, the executive class, and so on and so on. Our norms have become maladaptive, and it is adapt-or-die in our world.

* Though you could argue that the Senate’s new norms—i.e. partisanship—are in many ways a truer, better political system; the problem is that the new norms are mismatched with the old institution.