With the recent discussion created over Amy’s post, Confessions of a Bleeding Heart Libertarian, (the comment thread of which, in my opinion, contained some of the best debate I’ve read on the ALS blog for quite some time – personal abuse notwithstanding!), I thought it would be appropriate to post some thoughts on the precise intersection of political and societal ‘power’ structures, and the appropriate libertarian beliefs on these.
I’ve actually been meaning to write about this for quite some time, but was never able to fully elucidate my views, no doubt a product of the political schizophrenia that characterizes many of my political viewpoints. Fortunate, Reason Magazine came to the rescue the other week, with a debate entitled “Are Property Rights Enough?”, thus saving me from the task of actually writing about it.
Reason poses the question: “Libertarians traditionally have viewed coercion, especially when institutionalized in the form of government, as the main threat to freedom. But cultural pressures outside the state also can restrict people’s ability to live as they please. Is that another limit on liberty worth criticizing, or is it a function of voluntary choices?”
This is the continuation of an earlier debate between Todd Seavey & Keri Howley, which you may read here, here, here and here. Essentially Ms. Howley argued that libertarianism ought be concerned with maximizing freedom and autonomy, and as it is not only the state which impinges on these, but also various social forces, then libertarians ought to be concerned about them. Mr. Seavey, on the other hand, takes the more traditional line, that libertarians ought be concerned with the power of the state alone. Cato’s Will Wilkinson also entered into the debate, stating “If libertarianism is the view that coercion is never social or emotional, and that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian. If libertarianism is the view that human well-being is best promoted by ensuring “that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man,” then I am a libertarian. If this is a libertarian view, then the goal to minimize or abolish wrongfully liberty-limiting social norms is a libertarian goal.” (There are many other instances in the blogosphere of comments on this debate, particularly regarding the feminist points made, but you can find those for yourself!) I would strongly encourage people to peruse these posts however.
In any event, a few weeks ago Reason commissioned a debate, with Keri Howley, Todd Seavey, and Daniel McCarthy on this topic. Unfortunately, I cannot simply publish the whole thing here, so I strongly urge people hit the link and read the full thing. I will, however, provide some rather lengthy extracts.
Ms. Howley argues that: I call myself a classical liberal in part because I believe that negative liberties… are the best means to acquire positive liberties… 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. It was tradition, not merely government, that threatened to limit Min’s range of possible lives. To describe the expanded scope of her agency as merely “freedom from state interference” is to deny the extent of what capitalism has achieved in communist China.
As former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs can tell you, it’s possible to be an anti-government zealot with no interest whatsoever in individual liberty. If authoritarian fundamentalist compounds are your bag, the words personal agency will hold no magic for you, and Min’s situation will smack of social chaos. But libertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun.”
In what I think is a rather solid smack-down on this viewpoint, Mr. Seavey responds:
“Kerry Howley accuses property-focused libertarians—which I had hoped meant all libertarians—of having veiled cultural agendas, whereas hers is open, forthright, and beneficial to boot. Quite the contrary: Like countless young “Third Wave” feminists, Howley insists we see the specific, early-21st-century cultural agenda she’s pushing as a neutral blank slate, filled with endless possibilities and with no limitations on individuals and their boundless potential. By contrast, any conventions and cultural norms at odds with that vision are “walls,” like guard towers, seemingly backed by the threatening power of police truncheons…
There’s a vast universe of moral and philosophical judgments beyond libertarianism, and one of the beauties of the philosophy is that it leaves people free to debate those countless other matters without breaking the minimal ground rule of respecting one another’s rights. Trying to cram all of philosophy and culture into the tiny footnote that is libertarianism is precisely the kind of political overreaching that drives people away from radical philosophies, not a form of richness that aids recruitment.
It’s hard enough to sell people on the idea of property rights already without adding a host of “rich” moral baggage to the idea. Does Howley predict greater success if we tell people they have to give up traditional social norms, gender roles, and religious views at the same time? Do you think the metric system would have been an easier sell in Europe if bureaucrats had said everyone also had to adopt, say, Portuguese cuisine and androgynous clothing?
Most libertarians would say that once the side constraint of property rights adherence is established, people have a right to engage in whatever social patterns they wish to follow so long as the property side constraints are not themselves undermined. Howley mentions “fundamentalist compounds” dismissively, but isn’t the whole point of liberty that people are free to construct fundamentalist compounds, sexist strip clubs, respectable female-run corporations, gender-indifferent science labs, or all-male hunting lodges as they choose, so long as they do so voluntarily?
If not, we can be forgiven for wondering why someone who thinks like Howley would embrace the basic political stance of libertarianism in the strict property-defending sense at all. If people telling you “fat chicks should be shunned” is as oppressive as being hauled off to jail, why not pass laws banning anti-fat-chick discrimination? Why not endorse affirmative action laws? Why not tell Catholic-run charities they must hire gays? The traditional libertarian answer is that rights violations are fundamentally different from behavior that merely strikes you as narrow-minded.
Daniel McCarthy, on the other hand, poses the question:
“Must a free society treat those who hold irrational or bigoted opinions the same way it treats those who have enlightened views… Maybe a true culture of liberty has nothing to do with left-wing or right-wing orthodoxies. Rather than taking sides in culture wars over race, religion, sex, and subversion, libertarians —so this line of thinking goes—ought just to affirm a culture that supports property rights… Those who take their cues from John Stuart Mill will argue that expressive liberty is at least as important as property rights. We therefore ought to defend employees with unpopular views against arbitrary dismissal, regardless of whether we find their opinions righteous or repugnant…
The idea that only traditional attitudes, never progressive ones, can be oppressive strikes me as naive. Cultural progressives are as apt as anyone to make the leap from stigmatizing to persecuting their enemies. Scapegoating has been as useful for the authoritarian left as for the authoritarian right: Witness the hysteria about white separatists and right-wing militias that recurs every time a tolerant Democratic administration succeeds an intolerant Republican one. Randy Weaver, no less than Matthew Shepard, can attest to the consequences of demonizing misfits.
Nor do progressive attitudes toward sex and race necessarily lead to a culture of liberty. In the 1920s the Soviet Union was less racist and more sexually open than the United States. Divorce and abortion were legal and readily available, and more than a few Bolsheviks practiced as well as preached free love. Yet that did not make Russia a more fertile soil for liberty. Workers’ orgies were no defense against the power of the Soviet state, which soon revoked the moral license it had granted…
If some libertarians won’t tell you what freedom should look like beyond the absence of the state, don’t assume that these people must subscribe to a crabbed idea of liberty or else are smuggling their values behind a veil of cultural neutrality. These anti-statists may refuse to define the cultural content of libertopia because they believe deeply in the pluripotentiality of freedom—that freedom can mean the freedom to be a Mormon housewife as well as to be a postgendered television personality. Freedom, they realize, may even mean the freedom not to be free. Libertarianism does not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of the good life. By extension, libertarianism also should not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of liberty…”
Finally, Ms. Howley responds:
Perhaps it would be instructive to consider a hypothetical conversation between Seavey and a potential libertarian.
Potential Libertarian: What’s libertarianism?
Seavey: A philosophy of freedom and property rights.
Potential Libertarian: Oh, right. Freedom like civil rights?
Seavey: No, not that kind of freedom.
Potential Libertarian: Oh. Freedom like the freedom to be openly gay?
Seavey: No. That has nothing to do with liberty.
Potential Libertarian: Oh. Um…
Seavey: Let’s talk about easements!
Again, I would strongly encourage everyone to read the full thing. Really, do. A few excerpts really do not do justice to any of the arguments presented.
But what do people here think? To what extent libertarianism is a philosophy solely concerned with the role of government and property rights? Ought a libertarian champion greater goals? Once we get rid of the intervention of the state, will everything be all nice and great and good in the world, or will we need to actively work upon ‘improving society’?
Over to you…