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Michael Munger on Obedience to the Unenforceable

Mon Jun 19 2023

Econ Talk Podcast Summary

  • The podcast is Econ Talk, Conversations for the Curious, part of the Library of Economics and Liberty.
  • The host is Russ Roberts of Shalem College in Jerusalem and Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
  • Listeners can subscribe and find links to information related to today's conversation on
  • The archives contain every episode since 2006.
  • Today's guest is Michael Munger of Duke University, who has his own podcast called "The Answer Is Transaction Cost."
  • Munger's podcast explores norms and surprising things in the world around us through the lens of transactions cost.
  • The premise is that the answer to every important question (and many unimportant ones) is transactions cost.
  • The podcast can be found on Spotify, Apple, and other platforms.

Episode Topic: "Law and Manors" by Lord Molten

  • The topic of the episode is a short essay/speech given by Lord Molten in 1918-1919 titled "Law and Manors."
  • Lord Molten was an English mathematician, barrister, judge, member of parliament, and in charge of munitions during World War I.
  • The speech was published in the Atlantic in 1924.
  • The speech examines three domains of human action: positive law, free choice, and a third domain where there are no rules or absolute freedom.
  • In this third domain, there is a sense of duty that varies from nearly as strong as positive law to personal choice.
  • The domain of obedience to the unenforceable is a central idea in this essay.
  • Obedience to the unenforceable is a magnificent concept that gets at many ideas and concepts discussed on the program.

Institutions and Self-Interest

  • The fundamental human social problem is designing or maintaining institutions that make self-interest not inconsistent with the collective good.
  • Institutions are rules of the game we all recognize and obey.
  • Two approaches to solving this problem are designing institutions that make self-interest coincide with the collective interest and internalizing moral norms.
  • Invisible hand mechanisms and institutions can be used to make self-interest advance or at least not damage the collective interest.
  • Emergent norms, customs, and manners can also help govern behavior effectively.
  • Maintaining institutions that make self-interested individual action not inconsistent with the welfare of society is crucial.
  • The moral approach involves redesigning people to internalize norms and inscribing laws on men's hearts so they do what is right because it is the right thing to do.
  • Laws are different from legislation in that they are emergent norms rather than statutes passed by a legislature or king.

Legislation and Norms

  • There are three ways to approach laws: norms, legislation, and expanding the scope of legislation to prescribe things through the power of the state.
  • Some things that should not be done perhaps should not be illegal but rather part of manners or obedience to the unenforceable.
  • Desire and willingness to do the right thing has been eroded for many reasons, putting pressure on the state to enforce what was once unenforceable.
  • The dance between state power and individual freedom has been a huge part of the last 100 years or so.
  • Mechanism design is difficult because there is no "we" and we don't know enough to know the mapping from institutions into outcomes.
  • We need to rely on emergence such as James Buchanan's relatively absolute absolutes and Adam Smith's sense of propriety.

Adam Smith and Civility

  • Adam Smith's system of propriety explains how humans internalize the reactions of others to govern their behavior.
  • The desire for approval and avoidance of disapproval is the foundation of civility, according to Smith.
  • Laws are sometimes necessary, but there is an impulse towards being a decent human being even without them.
  • Legislating behaviors like rudeness and hateful speech can be problematic because it restricts the flexible and nuanced middle domain that relies on self-governance.
  • Banning murder, theft, and rape are typically straightforward, but there can be legitimate questions about whether they occurred or were justified.
  • J-walking is illegal in Jerusalem but encouraged in New York City.

Norms and Coordination

  • Jaywalking is illegal in New York, but it's not enforced.
  • The 55-mile-narrow speed limit meant 62 and going slightly over was accepted.
  • There are certain cultural exemptions that everyone understands, including the police.
  • In some areas of life, norms of behavior bend when circumstances are extreme or when there's unforeseen information available to participants.
  • Coordination devices can be used instead of statutes if they're only used judiciously and when necessary.
  • The Pittsburgh left turn is an example where it's against the law, but the norm is that the first car in line turning left gets to go first.

Importance of Manners

  • The idea of the middle land is falling and it poses a grave peril.
  • Laws against hate speech may prevent speech that wouldn't have been considered hate speech.
  • Social approval should be the mechanism to control hateful speech.
  • Unrestricted freedom of debate in legislature can lead to obstruction and destruction of debate.
  • Freedom was given as a trust to help forward debate, but members did not respond to it as such.
  • Clumsy and mischievous regulations have been introduced to prevent stifling of debate.
  • Civilization is fragile and easy to destroy, hard to build up.
  • Norms surrounding speech are difficult to create.

Liberty, Responsibility, and Filibuster

  • Creating norms is difficult and they often emerge naturally
  • People use their platforms for self-aggrandizement instead of doing what's right
  • Obligations are difficult to create because people feel like a sucker if they follow them
  • Erosion of norms is disturbing and leads to disobedience or legislation
  • Liberty comes with responsibilities and moral/ethical considerations
  • Losing the filibuster in the US Senate would be detrimental as it allows any individual senator to prevent passage of legislation

Dignity and Character

  • People in certain jobs may feel they have to accept abuse and mistreatment or be unemployed
  • Hiring someone for a job like cleaning should not be seen as degrading, but rather an opportunity to provide someone with work and dignity
  • Treating people who work for you with respect and dignity is important, regardless of the job they do
  • Non-worseness is a principle that suggests we should not act on moral impulses if it makes the person we care about worse off

Cultivating Good Habits

  • Cultivating good habits is important as it shapes our character and influences our actions.
  • The soul takes on the hue of our thoughts, which means that we project to the world the virtues and vices we have cultivated over time.
  • If everyone cultivates good habits, society will be better for everyone.
  • There are multiple equilibria in social terms, where one is doing the right thing even if no one is watching, and another is never doing the right thing even if someone is watching.
  • Habits change us, and behavior of doing the right thing relentlessly as a habit starts to become who we are.

Importance of Rules and Manners

  • Rules are powerful because they prevent individuals from persuading themselves that it's okay to break them in special circumstances.
  • Equilibrium behavior means that expectations are fulfilled by the actions of others, and breaking this can lead to a breakdown of following rules.
  • There is a natural impulse to want to change the whole system when faced with corrupt practices, but it's not an effective strategy.
  • Creating work for people through littering or leaving messes is not the right way to create jobs.
  • The talk discusses the importance of manners, which are often seen as unnecessary and restrictive in modern times.

Importance of Manners and Character

  • Manners are seen as unnecessary and restrictive in modern, wealthy, and civilized countries.
  • In Israel, it is not expected to wear a tie to a wedding, but wearing pants is the norm.
  • "Manners maketh man" means that manners are about being a person of upstanding behavior and fulfilling duties and obligations.
  • Manners include all situations from small things like opening doors for others to fulfilling obligations and duties.
  • Cultivating virtues and doing the right thing in all settings is what makes manners important.

Speaker's Perspective

  • The speaker discusses the importance of manners and character in all settings.
  • The essay being discussed uses a metaphor of a nation with borders that must be defended to illustrate the importance of defending one's own character.
  • The speaker identifies as a classical liberal who believes in limiting government and enhancing personal freedom while also recognizing individual obligation and responsibility.
  • They express a desire to expand the middle ground between law and legislation where personal conscience can guide behavior rather than relying on police enforcement.
  • The speaker notes that libertarians are often misunderstood and conflated with Libertines, but they do not support legalizing drugs.