When did men stop wearing hats? That’s a question asked by Russ Roberts in his book, “How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.” It’s part of a larger question that concerns the dynamics of social change and how something as prevalent as men wearing hats can suddenly become a thing of the past. There is no one reason, of course. While some people have attributed the change to fashion leaders who influence our style, others think it was the growth of automobiles making hats inconvenient for getting in and out. Still others believe it was a long term invisible trend that finally became mainstream when John F. Kennedy did not wear a hat to his inauguration. (He actually wore a silk top hat.) “Who killed the hat? Who created the trend that made it acceptable for an American president to go bare-headed?” The answer is it was not one person or event but what the economist F.A. Hayek described as “spontaneous order,” in which the unplanned shift is a new way of acting for millions of people. It was the result of years of gradual changes and complex interactions that culminated in what seemed like a moment. We cannot predict the moment but only explain it after the fact. One day men wore hats everywhere and on all occasions and then they didn’t.
We can all point to moments when something changed forever. It may be Woodstock, the destruction of the Twin Towers or the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus that so many of us celebrated last week. However, most of the changes we experience have been slowly building for years. We rarely wake up one day to a different world we left the night before.
One of the incremental changes we are witnessing now is something Lord Moulton described in 1924 - just about the same time men began quietly discarding their hats. Published in the Atlantic Monthly as “Obedience to the Unenforceable,” Lord Moulton described three basic domains of human actions. Imagine them as a spectrum. On the far left would be what he labels Positive Law or what we can call Total Regulation. Here, everything is prescribed and every action regulated with obedience being mandatory. To the far right on the spectrum would be Free Choice or what we can call Total Liberty. Here, there is complete freedom and unregulated behavior. Between those two there is a third domain which is distinct from both Total Regulation and Free Choice. “In that domain there is no law which inexorably determines our course of action, and yet we feel that we are not free to choose as we would. The degree of this sense of a lack of complete freedom in this domain varies in every case. It grades from a consciousness of Duty nearly as strong as Positive Law, to a feeling that the matter is all but a question of personal choice…and it has one and the same characteristic throughout —it is the domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable. The obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself.”
Adam Smith in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” would call this self-enforcement the result of our silent interaction with the “impartial spectator” we consult when considering what is moral and right. He calls it “the man within” who is the judge of our conduct. Others might call it conscience or a sense of obligation. Whatever we choose, there is always tension between the need for law and the desire for freedom. Not only for individuals but for societies and nations. When citizens gradually lose the desire to practice self-enforcement and encourage behavior that creeps closer to complete free choice the result will be, ironically, the call for more and more regulation. People then cannot be trusted to obey the unenforceable or consult the impartial spectator. “The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and ..the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to the Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation...The true test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.”
The bitter struggle between the extreme poles of our society has only underscored the wisdom of Moulton’s insight. It is not heavier regulation or unlimited free choice that will reduce the rift in our nation today. It is the recovery of a shared assumption that underlies personal responsibility and adherence to the self-imposed law - obedience to the unenforceable.
One more thing. In last week’s blog post, “Tell Me Less”, I mistakenly failed to attribute two quotes to their authors - Leon Nayfakh and John List. It was not intentional but bad editing by me. I have re-edited the blog to read correctly. My apologies to both authors.