Society and Tradition

America – the United States – is a nation of law. Each American – whether great or small – is equally its subject. Legislation is passed, after careful deliberation, in order to allow our society to function more peacefully and fairly. Law governs our day-to-day life. As much as we hate to admit it, law enforcement officers are our friends. Without them our society would degenerate into chaos.

And unicorns exist. Really!

The idea that laws govern our day-to-day lives is a myth. Most of our interactions with others are based on custom, on tradition. Shared customs are the glue that keep a society together. Traditions – rules that the vast majority know and obey – govern our daily actions. Customs keep society from degenerating into chaos.

Allow me to present an example.

You have, I’m sure, noticed the rectangular white signs that appear at intervals along the roads and highways. The signs have a printed legend, “Speed Limit,” and a number. Each of those signs is a posted law that everyone can see. They leave no room for pleading ignorance. But almost everyone routinely drives faster than the numbers “allow.” It’s a tradition.

Just yesterday I noticed a young lady driving a Ford Explorer. It was obvious to me that she was breaking at least two laws – she was exceeding the posted speed limit and tailgating. Both of that those activities, however, are customary on that particular highway. She was quite sure she was doing nothing worthy of punishment. The driver in front of her seemed to be of the same opinion. He was a deputy Sheriff in a marked police car.

To continue the example from a different point of view: the other day I read a blog post in which the writer claimed that he had found the worst drivers in the country. The reality is something different. Once again, custom trumps law. Traffic laws are pretty uniform throughout the United States – but if you drive from New York to New Orleans you’ll notice tremendous differences in behavior behind the wheel. The laws are the same – but people follow different driving customs in different areas. The more these customs differ from your own, the lower your opinion of the local drivers.

I’m not claiming that legislation has no effect on the way we live. But its primary effect is to change customs by forcing people (through fear) to change their behavior. I might go so far as to say that man-made written laws are, almost always, harmful.

The customs and traditions of a society develop gradually over time. What these customs are, or will become, depends on many factors. Among these are religion, population density, the ways in which people make a living, geography, climate, and the sorts of technologies in use.

As these factors change so will the traditions – but gradually, a little bit at a time. Changes in customs are usually slow and always tentative. After all, the old ways served well – most people will continue to use them. A behavioral innovator might influence his family, friends, and near neighbors but unless the new custom noticably outperforms the old custom it will be quietly forgotten.

Written laws are like new customs – except instantaneous and carved in stone. How often does a legislature repeal a law that it has passed? Like a new custom, the new law will be tried out. If it’s a complete and abject failure, as most are, more laws will be piled on top of the original law in an attempt to fix its shortcomings. Eventually a society finds itself in the situation we’re in today – a web of laws, passed with every good intention, that makes most human behavior illegal.

And so, for society to function, the law must be ignored and tradition obeyed.

But it isn’t that simple. People tend to confuse the laws and the customs and so lose respect for both. Most Americans tend to believe that the law is equal to the traditions – it’s the right way to order society. Because of this they come to believe that if a behavior isn’t illegal it must be suitable. This is probably a major factor in the disappearance of common (customary) courtesy. Discourteous behavior isn’t illegal so it must be moral! Written laws are often destructive of good customs.

Some argue that because society and technology are so advanced and complex today that more and more written laws are necessary. The converse is true. Customary laws are organic – they can change to suit changing conditions. Just as a person dropped into an unfamiliar environment can adapt and learn and survive, so can a society.

A society held rigid by a fossilized skeleton of legislation cannot adapt – and will die.