Among liberals of all kinds, both classical and revisionist, it is the discipline of economics that holds pride of place today. Insights from that discipline are at the heart of commentary and analysis.
However, there are other branches of the tree of scholarship that can also yield insights and help us to understand threats to individual liberty, and how to resist them. Sociology provides several of these. One of the most powerful, and greatly needed in these times, is the notion of a moral panic.
The concept of a moral panic was first explicitly formulated and given that name in a book by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen, published in 1972 under the title Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. The book used one particular panic (over the two supposed youth cultures of the title) to illustrate a more general thesis. This was that societies periodically suffer from episodes of panic and anxiety of a particular kind.
In these episodes, there is a widespread fear and anxiety over a perceived threat to society and order. The fear and anxiety are excessive and unreasonable (hence “panic”). This is because either the threat or problem is completely imaginary or its extent and severity is seriously exaggerated even when there is a real phenomenon. The threat is often associated with a specific deviant group or identity. These are the “folk devils” of Cohen’s title.
Again the group may be a real, actually existing one that is demonized and caricatured, or it may again be completely imaginary, with no actual existence. Confusingly though, in some cases an initially imaginary group or subculture becomes real, as people start to adopt the behavior
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