Missed Manners and Creeping Laws

All societies regulate personal behavior: That is part of what makes them societies, instead of mere aggregations of isolated individuals. Societies differ enormously, though, in just how they perform this regulation, how much they rely on law and the state, rather than informal or private means. If I walk into a crowded room wearing a Cat-in-the-Hat hat, people will laugh, since laughter is a powerful means of social sanction, an informal way of telling me my actions are deviant. If I am wearing nothing but said hat, people may still laugh, but additional sanctions will be imposed in the form of arrest, trial, and criminal punishment. All societies have extreme sanctions that they can levy against personal behavior that is seen as threatening. What has been unusual in recent years about the United States, and many of its European clones, is the tendency to extend official public sanctions to activities that, not too long ago, were viewed as private. Instead of unofficial sanctions (such as saying, "Did you hear what he did? What a jerk"), we move all too quickly to the realm of law, where the merely obnoxious and offensive becomes criminal. As American criminologist Raymond B. Fosdick lamented back in 1920, "We are of all people, not excepting the Germans, pre-eminently addicted to the habit of standardizing by law, the lives and morals of our citizens. . . . We like to pass laws compelling the individual to do what...

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