Libertarianism as a Liberal Project

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.

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13 Responses to Libertarianism as a Liberal Project

  1. Sarah says:

    I suggest we also end the witch hunt against people who have too many kids (e.g. Nadya Suleman).

  2. “Now, to be clear, none of these projects are libertarian, as such,” you write; precisely so. I don’t buy the “Oh, just shut up about the other stuff” line of thinking, but it is important to distinguish our cultural preferences from what we mean we talk about freedom from force. That should be simple enough to do — you just did it.

    But should Reason launch a “Homophobia watch” section? No, I don’t think so. Should Cato appoint a fellow in anti-scientology studies? Uhh. Nope. There’s enough tangible government coercion going on that limited resources should be devoted to that. Wouldn’t call for a dessicated dialogue from libertarians on these issues, just wise use of scarce resources.

    My other concern is that if one becomes too attached to some liberal conception of the good life (which I’m all for, personally speaking) it can bleed over into assessment of government policy in an unlibertarian fashion (e.g, “Hey, I really *love* science. Why do I oppose allocating more funds to the National Science Foundation?”). That usually isn’t too much of a problem, but you see it happen sometimes, and obviously there are lots of complications given how far we are from anything like a free society.

    The last point I’ll make on this subject, for now, is that for the purposes of practical politics it doesn’t matter. Libertarian views are deeply unpopular, and cosmotarian ideas even more so. Against God, country and family while simultaneously opposing leftist, quasi-religious conceptions of eco-friendliness and egalitarianism — we appeal to just about nobody, numerically speaking. So how much does it matter, really? Just say what you believe. Chances are no one is listening very closely, and will not make much of a difference in the world at large, driven as it is by superstition, conformism and irrational fear.

  3. Rhayader says:

    I don’t necessarily agree with the notion that for libertarians “the definition and wrongness of ‘force’ is taken as a self-evident ‘non-aggression axiom.’” For me at least, the true self-evident reality is that all people are equal. A creed against forceful action follows directly from that fundamental truth.

    Libertarianism is classical liberalism, which begins with equality and branches out from there. Libertarian bigots do exist I’m sure — although I suspect they are rare — but they’ve got some serious internal intellectual dissonance going on. Luckily, being libertarians, they wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about hoisting that baggage on the rest of us.

  4. My other concern is that if one becomes too attached to some liberal conception of the good life (which I’m all for, personally speaking) it can bleed over into assessment of government policy in an unlibertarian fashion (e.g, “Hey, I really *love* science. Why do I oppose allocating more funds to the National Science Foundation?”).

    This strikes me as putting the cart before the horse. I’m a libertarian because I’m a liberal. If the only reason I can think of to oppose some government program is because doing so is “unlibertarian,” with no connection to underlying liberal values, then maybe that particular plank of the libertarian platform isn’t very important.

    Rhayader, well said.

  5. Enh, I don’t really think so. The question is whether one could allow his attachment to some other value to override his concern for justice, as understood by libertarians.

    Funny thing about this whole debate, which I noted months back when it was being played out on Howley’s and Seavey’s blogs, is that it likely doesn’t make a dime’s worth of difference on policy grounds. It’s just a matter of rhetorical style. And, you know, if Howley feels comfortable making the thick argument, she should. If Seavey thinks it’s better to make the thin argument, he should. In terms of persuasiveness to nonlibertarians, it likely makes no difference since either approach is most almost certain to be ineffective due the unpopularity of libertarian ideas and values.

    It’s kind of like Marxists today debating whether to focus on persuading an intellectual cadre of elites versus mobilizing the masses of workers. Does it really matter? Both will fail because Marxism is a resoundingly unpopular and widely despised political worldview. So, too, for the advocates of liberty.

  6. Wendy says:

    “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.”

    Well said.

    This is why it’s important to continue debating within classical liberal circles. It’s also important to start demanding integrity of people within classical liberal circles. Arguing for self-governance while statists see us committing fraud and rewarding bad behavior doesn’t seem very productive. We mustn’t forget the freedom of DISassociation.

  7. Jimbo says:

    > Wikipedia and the Internet Archive are modern-day hairs…

    I never thought of Wikipedia as hairy; gotta check the spell-checker.

  8. Mike T says:

    I’m a libertarian because I’m a liberal.

    Likewise, I’m a libertarian because I’m a conservative. Libertarianism is only an individualistic wing of liberalism or conservatism. Most liberals take the tabula rasa argument of classical liberalism and turn them into the idea that man is clay which society and the state can mold into a higher, freer, better man. The “New Man Through Communism” idea came directly out of this view of the nature of man. Likewise, the conservative belief in original sin or the basic tendency toward evil (or anti-social behavior, if you so prefer) is a powerful motivator to either restrain the state or unleash it to control society.

    In the case of your Mormon example, like Howley, you fail to account for the dichotomy of cultural libertarianism: cultural libertarians want to maximize personal choices, but when adopted as a set of social values, libertarianism drives libertarians to actively undermine a whole array of options. You are, in essence, adopting a somewhat softer form social ostracism like what used to be used to control sexual behavior.

    For right-libertarians like me, this is no problem. I could care less about those Mormon extremists so long as they aren’t beating their kids, marrying them off against their will and things like that. I’m down with Muslim men having four wives. If two men and a woman want to have a polyandrous relationship, that’s their business. I don’t personally approve of any of those choices, and would freely tell them such if asked. You can have my support in choosing your lifestyle, you just can’t expect me to uncritically nod my head in approval. No has a right to validation.

  9. Vogateer says:

    Perhaps I’m reading different texts than you are, but your description of the non-aggression axiom is not the one I’m familiar with.

    “Libertarianism is commonly described as a political philosophy that favors eliminating “force” from human relationships.”

    Being opposed to the initiation of force against an individual is not the same thing as eliminating force from human relationships. So long as there are criminals, force will still be necessary when following the non-aggression axiom, easily justified in cases of self-protection and recovering property from a thief or other aggressor.

    “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.”

    You seem to be equivocating a starting point for a philosophy for the entire philosophy. Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard certainly had their faults, and I’ve seen Rothbard criticized on logical grounds (as Ed Feser has done – http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/08/rothbard-as-philosopher.html ), but your comments on them seem to putting up straw man and caricatures of them, without and substantive criticism.

    The rest of the post is no better, and hardly worth dealing with as it seems to merely be an attempt to antagonize Rand’s and Rothbard’s followers.

  10. A Libertarian Scientologist says:

    As a libertarian and a Freezone Scientologist, I wonder just what you mean by saying that one can ‘theoretically’ be a libertarian and a Scientologist. I was influenced by both Rand and Hubbard at about the same time and while I do not formally associate with either of the ‘in-groups’ of Objectivists or the CoS, I think there certainly is a strong and extensive individualist framework of ethics and action which takes into account quite a lot beyond simply being opposed to government meddling. Social rationalism, personal well-being, a culture which recognizes achievement and ability even when it does not monetarily reward it are all features that Objectivism and Scientology have.

  11. I simply meant that the CoS seems to be pretty hostile to individual liberty. Your self-identification as Freezone Scientologist suggests you don’t disagree!

  12. Danny Watson says:

    I agree with Wendy that we should focus more on discussion.

  13. El Salvador became a shithole because the gangbangers created in los angeles were deported. Thanks SalvadorSucks for exporting your culture to other countries.

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