In school I hated the concept of “norms.” They were wishy-washy, hard to pin down, hard to define clearly. We were studying civics and the teacher was explaining that our country was governed by norms as well as laws. I wanted nice, clear laws to memorize. Norms required me to think, I suppose, and like many teenagers I felt that was a lot of unnecessary work.
Lately I find myself revisiting the concept. My dictionary says a norm is “an authoritative standard; a principle of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control or regulate proper and acceptable behavior.”
For example, honor your parents. Keep your word. Don’t hurt pets. Respect your neighbor. Don’t commit adultery. The Ten Commandments reflect normative belief.
Norms are even more numerous than that, though. They’re everywhere. They’re all the things I’d been taught from toddlerhood. Things I should and shouldn’t do to be a responsible adult. They rise out of a common understanding among the people of a community. They allow us to get along with each other.
And, unless formalized into laws, they have no “teeth.” They’re enforced only by the reaction of the affected community to behavior that shatters the values its members hold in common.
Far from being less important than laws, they’re the actual fabric of civilization.
Our representative system of government reflects this fact. It is organized from small community to large in the way that allows the best reflection of the norms of each voting pool.
It’s a very cool system.
The president represents everybody, the largest voting pool, and the place where many nuances of belief are distilled, because of variety, into the clearest norms—basic norms of behavior with which nearly everybody agrees, regardless of religion or heritage.
Such as, stand by your word. Abide by the law. Don’t lie. Do not steal from the public purse. Act honorably in all transactions. These are only a few of them, and they seem simple. It’s the society that has become complex.
I’ve been shocked to realize how much of our daily governance depends on norms instead of laws. Even the balance of power between our three branches of government relies on normative agreement as well as legal.
They provide a necessary stability.
This matters to me personally because my retirement nest egg is dependent upon the reputation and stability of the United States.
So is yours, most likely.
Our economy depends on agreements where our word as a nation must be trusted. Spoken word and written word. The higher up you go in the government, the more every syllable is weighed and judged by the business people at home and abroad. Decisions are made accordingly.
Once trust is lost, it can be re-established only with the greatest difficulty. If ever.
To say that norms can be swept away without negative consequence when they complicate an elected official’s exercise of power is to invite economic and social chaos. Look at Crimea, Venezuela, Syria, Yemen.
Our system, which has been the best in the world, works well only if both officials and voters understand the basic values supporting our civilization and refuse to compromise when they are ignored.
This post first appeared as my column in the Fayette County Record, Nov. 2019