When people discuss the problems of society, in most cases the conversation will turn into a denunciation of lying and corrupt politicians. A more sophisticated crowd will blame bad laws, recognizing that the politicians only do what the law allows them to do…well, most of the time. Very few will consider their particular responsibility for holding their fellow man (politician or other) to account.
What most fail to understand is that a great majority of the social reality is a direct result of motivated (inter)action of the mass of the people. Laws can only work around that fact. No law can withstand the scorn of the people for too long. If the mass of the people were to suddenly change their mind on an issue and be determined to impose their opinion, the state would likely yield.
Economics, as the most developed of the sciences of human action, examines, among other things, the effects of expectations on the decisions of actors. If an actor is safe in his property, he will economize. It matters not whether that perception of safety is a result of a guarantee made by the state or as a result of expectations about the actions of private individuals. It does not follow that men will only act as we would want them to act if there are good laws. Good social norms can work as well, perhaps even better.
Where I’m from there’s an old vacation home neighborhood near the sea. Back in the day, the residents assigned a part of the beach to each property. When my parents bought the house, the previous owner showed them “their beach.” It’s important to note that the shoreline is made up mostly out of rocks and boulders. To make the beach more accessible, each property owner made interventions in his part of the beach, mostly by leveling parts of it and making concrete stairs. Say what you will about the aesthetics, but it is beyond doubt that without that intervention, the capacity of the beach would be a small fraction of what it is now, and the value of the properties in the neighborhood would be hurt.
What this case shows is that an understanding about property rights was enough to induce people to make investments that almost certainly would not have happened (to that extent) if it was not for that understanding. What’s more, that particular understanding was in violation of the state-imposed laws. And social norms can help promote particular cooperative efforts as well.
I do not wish to discount the value of political action, but not everything can be fixed through political action alone. We will only be able to take back control of our lives and our countries if we rebuild our communities. They will be, as they were in the past, a great source of strength for the advocates of a free society.