Nudity, Law, and Social Norms
| Peter Klein |
From Bryan Caplan I learn that Berkeley's "Naked Guy," a campus fixture during my graduate-school years there in the early 1990s, committed suicide last week. Bryan, then a Berkeley undergraduate, adds this astute observation: "At the time, I often pointed out that the Naked Guy was proof that social norms, not the law, were the foundation of civility: Even if nudity were legalized, only one student out of tens of thousands would take it all off."
The importance of informal norms and social conventions is increasingly recognized in economics (and law). The literature in this area goes back at least to Menger's (1883) analysis of institutions, and includes contributions from Schelling (1960), Ullman-Margalit (1977), Schotter (1981), Sugden (1986), Benson (1990), and Ellickson (1991). Recent work by Baker, Gibbons, and Murphy (2002) on relational contracting, focusing on the narrower question of firm boundaries, belongs on this list as well. This literature interprets social norms as equilibrium solutions to the kinds of coordination games popularized by Schelling (1960). Credible threats of reciprocity are the key. In these models agents abide by informal rules not out of a sense of moral duty, or from a process of unconscious socialization, but because it is in their rational self-interest to do so.
My sense is that management theory, and organizational behavior in particular, has yet to grapple with the insights from this strand of literature. Am I wrong?