This article was published in the Winter 1994-95 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
The Power of Ostracism
by Richard Hammer
This paper was presented at our 15 October 1994 Forum

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1) Ostracism can have great force.
2) Ostracism works in private spaces, not in public spaces.
3) Ostracism gets its power from reality.
4) The power of ostracism is limited by reality.

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In this paper I will introduce a few ideas about ostracism, a social tool which can have great power.

People who have studied libertarian theory more than I often take positions which I question. I may want to believe what they are saying, but I find it difficult. An important example for us has to do with contentions about the way that private legal systems could work. Take, for instance, the idea that defendants, charged with wrongdoing, would come to court voluntarily. This sure does not seem likely. But I must recognize that my expectation, that this would never happen, is rooted in the culture in which I was raised. In this culture that would never happen. Possibly in a different culture, which I may need to work to imagine, it might happen.

About ostracism, there are four points that I want to make. And I will organize this paper around these four points. They are:

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1) Ostracism can have great force.

1 a) Ostracism can mean death.

Ostracism can have great force. To show this I will start by repeating the account that Roderick Long has given us in the previous issue of Formulations. ("Anarchy in the U.K.: The English Experience With Private Protection," Formulations, Vol. II, No. 1 (Autumn 1994).) In England, before the Norman conquest, ostracism could mean death:

Outlaws then were people who were outside the protection of the law.

Bruce Benson gives a similar example in his book, The Enterprise of Law (page 18). Describing a primitive tribe in New Guinea: 

I have one more story which shows that the ultimate strength of ostracism could mean death, in primitive, pre-state societies. This comes from fiction, from the novel The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. The clan, which was a group of cave-dwelling Neanderthals, could punish members by banning them from the clan for a period of time, after which the offender could return. In extreme cases the banishment would be permanent. The assumption was that this would mean death; that a person cut off from the mutual supports of the clan could not survive alone in that environment.

In the story this happened to the heroine. She had committed an unforgivable offense; she had used a weapon, and weapons were supposed to be touched only by men. So the clan's ruling council of men met to decide her fate. It was not an easy decision for them, because, if I recall the story correctly, she had used the weapon, a sling, to kill a hyena which was carrying away the infant son of the clan leader. And the infant was still alive, so she had saved his life. But nonetheless, rules are rules, and they banished her expecting that would be the end of her. I will return to this tale when I am making my fourth point, later on.

1 b) But ostracism can also have lesser force, scaled to the infraction.

These examples show, I believe, that ostracism can have the power to inflict the punishment which we normally consider the ultimate punishment, death. If you accept this, then it should be easy to believe in the possibility of lesser punishments, which also might be meted out by ostracism. Thus I would assert, the power of ostracism can adjust to the scale of the infraction.

It seems to me that life is full of examples that illustrate the lesser powers of ostracism. An example is references: a person applying for a job typically is asked to supply references, and often enough those references are checked. Someone who burns their bridges behind them will soon find less avenues open before them.

We have an example in what happened to Tonya Harding. For her involvement in the attack on a rival figure skater, she was expelled from future participation in much of the sports world.

I have a story which I can tell from my personal experience, running a business. In my business of remodeling houses and building additions, there were a few times early on, when I was just getting started, when I wanted more work, so I advertised. But I never got a single customer from these ads. Because, as I now see looking back, people who are looking for a contractor to work on their house do not trust advertisements, which could be purchased by anybody. What they do is they ask around, among people they know and whose judgment they trust, and ask if anyone knows of someone who would be good for this kind of work. After I had been in business for several months I found that I had a steady stream of people calling me, asking me if I could do some work on their houses. All of these came from referrals.

My story I suppose illustrates not ostracism, but the other side of the coin, the building of trust. I believe I could not have gotten into business if I had not left my customers satisfied. I think almost all business transactions assume trust at some level. Our willingness, in our interactions with others, to extend somewhat more trust than we have extended before, depends upon the trust which has been built thus far. And we have all kinds of ways we can cut each other off if ever the trust we have extended is violated.

One final example of the power of ostracism in business is given by the way merchants in mediaeval Europe policed themselves. They developed for themselves a system of law called the law merchant. Ostracism was the threat that made merchants comply with the judgments of the law merchant. If they wanted to stay in business they had to comply, because others would stop trading with them. A merchant who spurned a ruling of the merchant court stood to lose his customers, suppliers, or even his passage home a ship owner who relied upon his reputation for his future business might be reluctant to accept the fare of a scofflaw.

No doubt each of us can think of many more examples of how ostracism works. But to wrap up this point, ostracism can have all the power it needs: from the minimal frowns with which we police mispronunciation of words, to refusals to come to the defense of one being attacked for committing murder or rape. I believe ostracism, in the right cultural environment, could conceivably be the only force necessary for enforcement of social rules.

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2) Ostracism works in private spaces, not in public spaces.

This second point is something that I have been thinking about during the past few years. My ideas are still evolving, so I can not claim that I know I am right about all this, but it does seem to fit with other theory which I have been learning. So I assert: ostracism works in private spaces, not in public spaces.

Let me start with an example. Consider the way you behave when you are in a private restaurant. This is a private space. You know that your behavior must conform to certain standards. Although people rarely talk about this, almost everyone who frequents restaurants knows it without needing to talk about it. The owner can kick you out, and probably will kick you out if your behavior deviates from acceptable norms. And it works quite well, I would say. Behavior in private restaurants is, for the most part, policed satisfactorily.

Now, let me give definitions of what I mean here.

Now for an example of a public space, consider the public street outside the restaurant. In the public street, behavior is policed, if at all, by collective process or government police.

Public spaces are not only spacial or geographic, but extend wherever law might extend. A class of behavior becomes public space, I believe, when it is regulated by legislation. For instance, practices such as hiring and firing are now regulated so that employers often are restrained from exercising either ostracism or (the other side of the coin) trust. Control over employment practices, when legislated, becomes public space, a space in which the power of ostracism can no longer act effectively.

What causes the creation of public spaces? I am aware of three causes: 

Now I am not saying that public spaces go completely without control. Policing does happen in public spaces. And commonly most citizens understand the ways that antisocial behavior in public space can be policed. Three of these ways are: 1) They can take upon themselves the role of public enforcer. But this is normally risky, unsupported and ineffective. 2) They can call the police. 3) They can try a longer term approach such as phoning their elected representative or writing a letter to the editor of their newspaper. But, when it comes to policing behavior in public spaces, few if any people have clear authority of the sort found in private spaces, of the sort that the owner of a restaurant has.

We can see the difference between public spaces and private spaces in another light if we consider anonymity, the condition in which the identity of a person is not known. Anonymity is for the most part, I think, a feature of public spaces. Private property owners always have the right to know who you are if you are in their space. Or, they may be willing to accept not knowing your identity provided they have some other assurance that your behavior in their space is somehow constrained. Public spaces are spaces in which a person can escape being known. Public spaces, by their very existence, provide wrongdoers, people who would suffer ostracism in privates spaces, with a way to escape a history of wrongdoing. And public spaces provide wrongdoers a way to travel into a new community where they might receive, once again, the benefit of the doubt as honest persons.

Another example here has to do with body language and rude behavior regarding pressing into the space of another person. I am sometimes annoyed by the behavior of some drivers on the public roads. This might be tailgating, or flashing lights to demand passage, or cutting me off. But notice that this is happening in a public space which has, by virtue of being public, these two features: 

In a private space such rules could be set simply and efficiently, by the proprietor. In a public space the amount of civic energy, which would be required to decide and enforce such rules, frustrates those who might favor such rules. Thus this particular aspect of the public space will probably remain completely unpoliced.

To wrap up this point, I assert that ostracism fails as a tool in enforcing social behavior only where the existence of some public space strips ostracism of its power. Now I believe this enough that I challenge you to tell me of an example where you believe ostracism would fail to police unwanted behavior. And then I will take the challenge to try to show that, in the circumstances you describe, you must be assuming the existence of some public space.

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3) Ostracism gets its ultimate power from reality.

Just as reality limits what any one of us as an individual can do (I cannot expect to run a four-minute mile), reality likewise limits what any group of individuals, or society, can do (I would maintain that the United States could not have landed a man on the moon during the decade of the 1940's). This limit gives ostracism its ultimate power.

I will try to establish this point by giving a few examples. First consider restraints on violence, perhaps the most obvious need of social order. This ostracism is sustained by reality because, in the competition to survive, a society which did permit unprovoked violence may not survive. Now the individuals ostracized for their violence could try to live alone, not a happy prospect, or could try to form a new society which did permit unprovoked violence, but, my point is, that would not work either. External, extra-societal reality backs up this ostracism.

My next example is less obvious, and therefore I think is more likely to be a subject of debate. Consider a society which values honesty, uprightness in contract, and which therefore ostracizes liars and cheaters. It will prosper better than other societies, I contend, because of economics. These economics regard the benefits of being able to plan, and the cost of policing. Regarding planning: the most beneficial projects which may be undertaken in a society often require a long time frame, and it makes sense to undertake these projects only if that society offers some certainty in the future, if an investor can have confidence that contracts will be fulfilled. Regarding the cost of policing of promises: this is achieved with the least expense if people police themselves. Therefore ostracism of liars and cheaters is backed up by economic reality.

Incidentally this sustenance of honesty and contract may explain in part, I think, the economic success of Western civilization.

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4) The power of ostracism is limited by reality.

When a society tries to impose rules upon an individual who does not agree with the rules, then the individual may decide to relinquish membership in that society. If the individual can then live successfully outside the society (carrying on in ways that would violate the rules within the society) this proves that the rules were not necessities imposed by external reality, but rather were matters of taste or values incidental to the requirements of life. If a society becomes foolish in the rules it tries to impose, then many members will exit and live quite successfully outside that society. Here we see a limit on the power of ostracism.

For an example, consider prohibition, the attempt by the American government in the early 1900's to prohibit the drinking of alcoholic beverages. A great many people who chose to ignore the rule were able to continue their lives successfully. This limited the power of those who attempted to enforce the rule.

And I find another example in the novel The Clan of the Cave Bear. The heroine was a woman of exceptional capability. In spite of being banished by the clan she was able to carry on, alone for a few years, till she found new society.

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Now, pause a minute to look at these last two points: that ostracism gets its power from reality, yet its power is limited by reality. We see that reality empowers only certain types of ostracism. Reality, I suggest, empowers ostracism of acts which libertarians would call real crimes, crimes which have victims. But it does not empower ostracism of victimless crimes. Ostracism has just the power which libertarians would like a law enforcement agency to have.

Ostracism is a tool which most of us do not think of when we think of public problems. And this is reasonable because public space can be policed only by public action. But I would encourage you to learn to recognize public spaces, which are not only pieces of real estate but are also any domains, of choice or action, regulated by government law. And once you recognize that a mismanaged space is public, ask how behavior in that space might differ if the space were private, and if therefore the power of ostracism were returned. D

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Richard O. Hammer, of Hillsborough, NC, to advance the work of the Free Nation Foundation, is giving himself sabbatical leave from his small business of building houses one stick at a time. He is active in local politics in Orange County, North Carolina, and writes columns in the local paper, interpreting political events in a libertarian frame. In the past he worked as an engineer and management scientist.