Sunday, November 13, 2005

Metaphor du Jour

Groucho Marx is supposed to have said "I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member" -- or something in that vein. In other words, when an exclusive club loses its exclusivity, membership in the club becomes less valuable, both to the members who joined it when it was still exclusive and to prospective members (if they are as astute as Groucho Marx).

But there's more to it than that. Suppose that the exclusive club has stringent standards of conduct, which aren't always observed but which most of its members strive to honor. Suppose that by changing its rules of admission -- by admitting Groucho Marx, for instance -- the club also seems to signal that it has lowered its standards of conduct. What is likely to happen as a result? At the margin, even some of those members who had joined the club when it was exclusive will adapt to the lower standards of conduct. Moreover, many persons who would have sought membership in the club when it was exclusive will simply decline to join it, with the result that, at the margin, some of them will not rise to the standards of conduct that they would have risen had they joined the club.

Human beings respond to social norms in ways that might seem "irrational" to those who think that humans are nothing but wealth-maximizing automata. Humans are much more complex than that, however, which is why it's important to have exclusive "clubs" with high standards of conduct. If abstractions such as "honor" and "duty" were meaningless, soldiers wouldn't join a "club" whose unwritten rules sometimes require them to throw themselves onto hand grenades; firemen wouldn't join a "club" whose unwritten rules sometimes require them to risk almost-certain death on the slim odds of rescuing a person from an inferno.

There is a lesson in this for who are ineligible for certain exclusive clubs. They should -- in the interest of society's well-being -- form their own exclusive clubs instead of trying to force their way into those clubs that already exist. They can call their clubs whatever they wish -- and they can set very high standards for membership in those clubs -- but they should not devalue the clubs that already exist by trying to change the rules of admission to those clubs.