In Defense of Qualified Conformity: Embracing Individuality within Societal Norms

With my background and views, I should be highly sympathetic to Bryan Caplan’s new book, You Will Not Stampede Me: Essays on Non-Conformism. I’m a fan of Caplan’s previous books on voter ignorance, immigration, and education. In addition, I’m a libertarian, an atheist, author of a book on systematic ignorance and bias, and an advocate of unpopular views. I’m more likely than the average person to violate various social norms, and I do indeed agree with a lot of Caplan’s book. For example, he explains why many commonly held views are likely wrong and how you can get away with non-conformism with few social or economic penalties. Many conformists are unwilling to enforce conformity, which makes non-conformism easier than we think. Despite this, I do believe that some key arguments for limited conformity might be underestimated.

One argument for limited conformity is that it makes sense on questions you don’t care much about. For example, I’m skeptical towards gender-neutral language, but I usually go along with majority intellectual trends on these matters because it’s better to avoid unnecessarily alienating people. Burkean conservatism suggests that some widely held views and norms might embody valuable wisdom, even if modern non-conformists don’t understand why. The work of many scholars, including both Caplan and myself, shows that majority opinion on political issues is often heavily influenced by ignorance and bias, and that voters have little incentive to seek the truth and correct wrong opinions. However, social norms that emerge from market processes or civil society are more likely to be well-founded.

If your workplace, church, or social circle has certain norms, there’s at least a substantial likelihood they make good sense, even if you may not understand why. Sometimes it makes sense to conform to the views of experts, especially in cases where there is a broad consensus among relevant experts, and they have good incentives to seek the truth. These points might be compatible with Bryan Caplan’s views, but they are worth keeping in mind if you are the kind of person who views norms and traditions with suspicion. Intellectuals – especially those who hold unpopular views – may have the opposite bias and are likely overrepresented among academics and political commentators, possibly even readers of this blog.