Exclusion As A Substitute For Norms, Law, & Governance

Hell may not be other people, but worry sure is. That is, what we worry most about is what other people might do to us. People at the office, near our home, at the store, on the street, and even at church.

To reduce our worries, we can rely on norms, law, and governance. That is, to discourage bad behavior, we can encourage stronger informal social rules, we can adopt more formal legal rules, and we can do more with complex governance mechanisms.

In addition, we can rely on a simple and robust ancient solution: exclusion. That is, we can limit who is allowed with the circles we travel. We can use exclusion to limit who lives in our apartment complex, who shows up at the parties we attend, and who works in a cubicle near us.

Now the modern world tends to say that it disapproves of exclusion. The bad ancient world did much gossiping about what types of people could be trusted how, and then it relied a lot on the resulting shared judgements within their norms, law, and governance. We today have instead been trying to expunge such judgments from our formal systems; they are supposed to treat everyone equally without much reference to the groups to which they belong.

In addition, we’ve become more wary of using harsh punishments, like torture, death, or exile.  And we are more wary of using corruptible quick and dirty evaluations within our norms, law, and governance. For example, we have raised our standards for shunning neighbors, pulling over drivers, convicting folks at court, and approving large bold governance changes. And people today seem less willing to help the law via reports and testimony. Oh we may be more willing to apply norms to people we read about on social media; but we apply them less to the people we meet around us.

As a result of these trends, many people perceive that we have on net weakened the power of our systems of norms, law, and governance to constrain bad behavior. In response, I think they’ve naturally increased their reliance on exclusion. They look more carefully at who they allow into their schools, firms, apartments, and nations. And they are less willing to give a marginal person the benefit of the doubt.

Since we don’t want to look like we are excluding on the basis of simple group affiliations, we instead try to rely on a more intuitive and informal aggregation of many weak clues. We try to get a feel for how much we like them or feel comfortable with them overall. But that need not result in more mixing.

For example, colleges that admit people just on GPA and test scores can be more open to lower class students than colleges that require applicants to have adopted the right set of extracurricular actives, and to have hit on the right themes in their essays. Lower class people can find it is easier to get good grades and scores than to track the new fashions in activities and essays.

Similarly, Tyler Cowen makes the point somewhere that when firms had simple and clear rules on dress and behavior, someone with a low class background could more easily pass as high class; they just had to follow the rules. Today, without such simple rules, people rely more on many subtle clues of clothes, conversation topics, travel locations, favorite music and movies, and so on. Someone with a lower class background finds it harder to adopt all these patterns, and so is more obviously outed and rejected as not one of us.

The point seems to apply more generally. The net effect of our today relying less on norms, law, and governance, and avoiding simple group labels in exclusion, is that we rely more on exclusion based on an intuitive feel that someone is like us.

This may be a cause of our increasing class and political polarization, at home and work. Feeling less protected by norms, law, and governance, and shy of using simple group identifiers, we are more and more surrounding ourselves with others who feel comfortably like us. We can tell ourselves that we aren’t excluding Joe or Sue because they are Republicans, or don’t have a college degree. Its just that those sort of people tend to give off dozens of other off-putting signs that they are just not people like us.

We would call it an outrage if society as a whole excluded them explicitly and formally because of a few simple signs. Only ignorant and rude societies do that. But we feel quite comfortable excluding them from our little part of the world based on our just not feeling comfortable with them. Hey, as anyone knows, in our part of the world it is just really important to have the right people.

Consider this another weak argument for relying more on stronger norms, law, and governance. That could let us rely less on exclusion locally. And mix up a bit more.

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  • I wonder if there is more exclusion. There was certainly a lot before based on color, ethnicity, religion, and money. It is mostly the lines of exclusion have shifted.

    • Theresa Klein

      This. IMO excluding people for expressing racist beliefs is a massive improvement over excluding people because they have black skin.

  • My perceptions are at complete variance on the premise of weak norms and governance. I’m tempted to ask what universe you live in. We see political correctness norms strangling academic speech, sexual propriety norms being given “zero tolerance” interpretations, the federal government conducting massive property seizures based on alleged drug transactions (norm violations) unsupported by a criminal conviction, etc. We see increasing police intervention in domestic affairs under domestic violence norms.

    Your logic seems correct: if norms weakened, this could explain a tendency to exclusivity. Only the norms haven’t weakened (at least not the most intrusive ones); and other explanations exist for exclusivity.

    I’d think you might conjecture in line with one of your themes: we’re getting richer and that’s what’s important. Most humans prefer to be with those similar to themselves, and as we get richer, we can better afford this luxury.

  • After Charlottesville there was a push to ban the organizers from various social media sites. I don’t recall much of an effort to get the government to crack down on them (aside from the driver who killed a counter-protestor). So it seems in that case there’s a consensus on favoring exclusion over law.

    • A push to exclude someone, it seems to me, is a normative affair. The ordinary appetite to exclude different folks so one can avoid contact with them seems entirely different from the drive to exclude them from everywhere. Blacklists are normative, not exclusionary. The internet mogul who excluded the Daily Stormer said he did it because he could: he wanted to make a mark on the world, not save himself or even his customers from enduring the neo-Nazi’s presence.

      • Good point about blacklists vs personal avoidance.

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  • AndHis Horse

    I think that there’s an important, qualitative difference between exclusion based on blacklists which cover a large portion of what is accessible (e.g. exile from one’s town) vs. whitelists which cover small parts of society (e.g. failure to welcome someone in a given social group).

    The former is a really bad thing, particularly without high standards of evidence, because in a world without many relatively cheap alternatives, being stripped of one’s existing status in a community is a massive blow to one’s opportunities.

    The latter, however, is significantly less of an issue – being rejected from entering a small group does not destroy any existing investment (or destroys very little – one may have invested some into impressing the group) of time and energy and the like. Nor does it destroy all, or in some cases even a significant fraction of one’s opportunities. It’s still not great – and if there are structural influences which make a large proportion of groups less likely to be accepting, that approaches similarity to exile as the proportion approaches one. But in a world with a multiplicity of viewpoints and subcultures, comparing modern exclusion with ancient exile – or calling out an opposition to the latter but not the former – simply isn’t useful.

  • > Tyler Cowen makes the point somewhere that when firms had simple and clear rules on dress and behavior

    One place http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/05/informal-dress-social-mobility-sicilian-perspective.html

  • Theresa Klein

    I think this is a muddle. Norms are enforced via social exclusion. What we should be avoiding is excluding people who haven’t violated any norms – and excluding those who have.

    • The content of the “norms”doesn’t matter?

      • Theresa Klein

        It does. We should also try to have norms that make sense!
        Resist excluding people just because they wear wierd clothes or eat with the wrong fork or seem a little odd. Be compassionate toward those who are different. But do punish rude, intolerant or uncivil behavior.

    • Robin Hanson

      The converse isn’t true; people are excluded who don’t violate any norms.

  • victoria wilson – mn

    I think why it appears that groups are jumping directly to exclusion rather than working through norms is twofold. First, people seem to have forgotten that it takes work; work to educate, nudge and influence new comers to norms. They seem to want ready-made just-like-me buddies to pop into their lives. Second, groups are being shocked into realising that even though professed to be inclusionary, they are only selectively inclusionary. From feminists who are really only pro-life feminists, to the down trodden who must be foreign and not middle American, to vocal activists who must sway to a particular political agenda and none other.
    Interestingly, the incredible power of cross-cutting group purposes flexed extraordinary muscle this year when feminists acknowledged their short comings, tackled a universal objective and made a play against the predators who have kept all women in check. If nothing else comes of the caotic social shuffling this year, the message of this benefit, to build coalitions with other seemingly opposed group, will hopefully ring true and loud as we start the new year.

  • Blissex

    «In addition, we’ve become more wary of using harsh punishments, like torture, death, or exile»

    Torture or death (and some forms of exile) are very common, just not for middle class people. Because middle class people don’t like paying taxes to fund proper processing of suspected violators, they have given enforcers the ability to torture and kill “on suspicion” the underclass. The enforcers use routinely such a blank cheque. “Due process” is expensive, and underclass people are cheap, and the middle classes, especially after the 1960s riots, want them to be terrorized.

    «For example, colleges that admit people just on GPA and test scores can be more open to lower class students than colleges that require applicants to have adopted the right set of extracurricular actives, and to have hit on the right themes in their essays. Lower class people can find it is easier to get good grades and scores than to track the new fashions in activities and essays.»

    The original (pre-WW2 and perhaps even pre-WW1) rationale for using extracurricular activities and essays as paramount in admission to “top jobs” granting colleges was to exclude the sons of jewish mothers, quite a few decades ago: on simple admission exams they were “stealing”, like asian students today, the places that should have gone to the sons of WASP mothers. IIRC at some point sons of jewish mothers were winning around 20-30% of admissions even at a WASP finishing school like Harvard, because jewish mothers were much better at being “tiger moms” and squeezing their sons very hard for admission exams.