My friend Kerry Howley’s has a fantastic essay about the relationship between individualism and libertarianism:
I call myself a classical liberal in part because I believe that negative liberties, such as Min’s freedom from government interference, are the best means to acquire positive liberties, such as Min’s ability to pursue further education. I also value the kind of culture that economic freedom produces and within which it thrives: tolerance for human variation, aversion to authoritarianism, and what the libertarian economist F.A. Hayek called “a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”
But I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends…
“True libertarianism is not cultural libertarianism,” the philosopher Edward Feser wrote on the paleolibertarian website LewRockwell.com in December 2001. This statement was immediately preceded by a call for the stigmatization of porn, adultery, divorce, and premarital sex—in other words, an argument for a particular kind of culture. Feser claimed that small government and an ethos of “personal fulfillment” were incompatible, and he argued for the former over the latter. In the guise of an attack on cultural libertarianism, Feser demanded that libertarians espouse different patterns of cultural behavior.
As it turns out, all libertarians are cultural libertarians. We just don’t share the same agenda. Some prefer to advance their agenda by pretending it doesn’t exist: that social convention is not a matter of concern for those who believe in individual liberty. But when a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content—has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians—he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state.
Two other commentators, Todd Seavey and Daniel McCarthy, square off against Kerry, arguing that it’s a mistake for libertarians to concern themselves with forms of oppression that don’t involve the state. Sure, Warren Jeffs, the head of an oppressive Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints community, may have been a bad guy, they seem to say. But there’s nothing distinctively libertarian about criticizing his misdeeds, provided that the members of his community were there voluntarily.
Libertarianism is commonly described as a political philosophy that favors eliminating “force” from human relationships. Unfortunately, I think the libertarian movement has inherited from Rand and Rothbard an allergy to giving deep thought to the question of what force is and why it’s bad. Rather, the definition and wrongness of “force” is taken as a self-evident “non-aggression axiom.” And all libertarian conclusions are said to follow from the axiom: just figure out who is forcing whom (almost always the state is doing the coercing), and make them stop.
Unfortunately, when you adopt a political philosophy that fits on a postcard, it leaves a vacuum that is filled by whatever inchoate political prejudices you held before you picked up that copy of Atlas Shrugged at the age of 19. And if your political beliefs say that nothing besides state coercion matters, that means you’re likely to underweight the importance of injustices perpetrated by parties other than the state. Like Kerry says, there are many social pathologies that can’t be traced directly to a particular action of the state. The Rothbard/Rand formulation of libertarianism provides no real guidance on how to think about these topics.
Kerry points us toward a more promising approach that views libertarian politics as one facet of a broader liberal worldview. This worldview starts with a commitment to individual liberty for all, and then looks for projects that will enhance the liberty of individuals. Limiting the power of the state, which frequently impinges on individual freedom, is one such project. But there are many others. Fostering a culture of gender equality, so that women do not face hostility for choosing careers that are considered non-traditional for their gender, is a liberal project. Ditto for opposing prejudiced attitudes toward gays and lesbians.
Liberal projects also don’t have to be explicitly political. Expanding literacy and access to information is a liberal project, because better education gives people greater autonomy. Andrew Carnegie’s 19th century effort to build libraries around the country was such a project. Wikipedia and the Internet Archive are modern-day heirs to this tradition. They’re working to achieve the liberal dream of making the world’s information is freely available to everyone.
There are also liberal projects that are narrowly focused on combatting particular types of oppression. Battered women’s shelters ensure that women in abusive relationships have the opportunity to leave them. Anti-scientology activists help to publicize the authoritarian character of scientology and helps scientologists who want to escape do so.
Now, to be clear, none of these projects are libertarian, as such. It’s possible to be a libertarian and believe that, say women should get back in the kitchen, and gays should get back in the closet. Theoretically you can be a libertarian scientologist, or a libertarian who thinks libraries are a waste of money. But I think that if you’re a libertarian because you care about liberty, rather than simply being a libertarian who hates the government, then you ought to be interested in a broad array of liberal projects. It’s good and important to criticize the state when it does illiberal things. But non-state actors do illiberal things too, and our silence and inaction on those topics contributes to the perpetuation of those injustices. It’s a cramped kind of liberalism that only cares about threats to liberty that come from the state.