Are there non-state forms of regulation?

Social Norms

There are non-state forms of regulation, just as there are non-state forms of government.

  • Customers regulate by buying or rejecting products, and by writing positive or negative reviews, or through positive or negative word-of-mouth.
  • Lenders and investors regulate by establishing standards in return for their money.
  • Insurance companies regulate by establishing rules for coverage
  • Firms like Underwriters Laboratory and NSF provide testing for products

The list could go on and on. There are also cultural forms of regulation. A key example is one of the most powerful regulations in America’s history — the prohibition against speaking the N-word. This rule….

  • Ends careers and destroys fortunes when violated
  • Was never passed by any legislature
  • Is not enforced by police or courts
  • Is one of the most honored and obeyed rules in American history

Market forces and social norms are actually superior forms of regulation because they involve no violence and can rapidly adapt to changing needs. State regulation, by comparison, is slow because it depends on a political process. It’s also prone to manipulation by special interests. Even worse, The State itself is almost completely unregulated. No one really controls The State, and The State suffers no harm when it fails. Quite the contrary: Politicians tend to use failure as an excuse to grab more power and spend more money.

These examples point the way to the future . . .

For a deeper look at this subject read our short article, “How To Think About Regulation.”

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Jim Babka

About the Author

Jim Babka

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Jim Babka is co-founder of the Zero Aggression Project and President of, Inc. He’s an author and former talk show host.
Previously, he was the President of, Inc., defending free press rights all the way to the Supreme Court. He and Susie are the proud, home-schooling parents of three teenagers. He enjoys theology, UFC, target practice, and Tai Chi.

Perry Willis

About the Author

Perry Willis

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Perry Willis is the co-founder of the Zero Aggression Project and Downsize DC. He was the National Director of the Libertarian National Committee on two occasions, and ran two Libertarian Party presidential campaigns. He has an extensive background in marketing and fundraising, and has ghost written direct mail appeals for numerous luminaries, including Karl Hess, Ron Paul, Charlton Heston and Harry Browne.

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Show Comments 6


  1. In the 1700s regulating arms and militia meant regular gun maintenance and practicing working as a team. It has come to mean passing laws. If you ask if marital sex should be regulated, few would say “yes”. But social norms do apply. These are informal customary practices. Deviating would be judged harshly by many. If you ask if these social norms (regulations?), vis-a-vie sex, should be followed the attitude would be different. My point is that you are using regulation in an obscure, uncommon sense when you claim it may be voluntary. Regulations as mandatory (law) are so universal and intrusive that it is assumed the word means “law”, abet a lessor one, the violation of which is not a criminal act, but subject to penalty. Govern is another word that fits this usage. It started out as voluntary control and now is assumed to mean control by force or threat thereof. For example, most would use “state” and “government” interchangeably.
    You may want to keep all the accepted (favorable) connotations associated with these words, while eliminating the violence/force but that would be very difficult. It would require two separate meanings, and require people to note the context before knowing how the word is being used. This is mental work most would not like or do. For example, “radical” can mean “extreme” or “fundamental”. But most assume only one meaning, usually “extreme”, regardless of the context.
    I suggest you start fresh with words that do not have baggage. It’s quicker, easier, to communicate.

    1. The point of this article is not to find the best word to describe social norms and customs, but rather to suggest a tool to combat the incorrect but widespread conflation of liberty with anarchy. This really is our biggest obstacle I think.

    2. Voluntaryist wrote, “… and require people to note the context before knowing how the word is being used.” Yet, that is already true with any two people speaking or writing. Nothing has “meaning” outside of a context.
      I agree with you that the “choice of words” seems like only a “spin” but I agree with our ZAP hosts that CURRENT use of language in political discussion is so haphazard, with labels, if Your/Our conversations about the ideas do happen to bring out some question about the CONTEXT, that becomes an opportunity to widen the application of what you might be talking (politically) about.
      Using words affectively (not misspelled) makes a lot of difference. Consider how Frank Luntz changed the momentum on immigration by persuading Republicans to use the word “illegal” instead of the accurate “undocumented.” He brags about it in his book, “Words that Work.”

      1. Hi Joe. You’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of understanding what we’re trying to do. Any question about the legitimacy of how we use certain words creates a conversation. We think that conversation could inspire new modes of thinking. That is our aim.

      2. Are we interested in selling an idea by any means? I hope not. That is the strategy of people who have no respect for truth or others. F.L. won some political points by using “illegal” to label those who had not been convicted, but may have committed an illegal act. Who among us has not? Are we all “illegals”? And what does that even mean? It is an invented designation used to smear or demean. In the early 1800s slavers pointed out the run-aways had broken the law. Those run-aways were “illegals”. Using that label on escapees might have “changed the momentum” on the validity of the Underground Railroad debate. But should this victory be cheered? Should it be emulated? Is it honest to use words that misled or make it more difficult to focus on the whole picture because they distract from the core issue?

        1. Of course an idea should not be sold by any means. It should only be sold using good means. We think we are doing that. You disagree. So be it.

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