Don’t Ask The Libertarians To Save The Whales

libertarians_bumper_sticker-p128729396149373399trl0_400Kerry Howley in Reason:

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. 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.

Convention creates boundaries as thick as any border wall and ubiquitous as any surveillance state. In Min’s village, women are constrained by a centuries-old preference for male descendants. (Men are also constrained by this tradition, as families are less likely to permit their valuable sons to migrate to the city.) Most people will accept their assigned roles in the village ecosystem, of course, just as most Americans will quietly accept the authority of a government that bans access to developmental cancer drugs while raiding medical marijuana dispensaries. A door is as good as a wall if we cannot imagine walking through it.

It ought to seem obvious that a philosophy devoted to political liberty would concern itself with building a freedom-friendly culture. But the state-wary social conservative flinches when his libertarian friends celebrate the power of culture itself to liberate: the liberty of the pill, of pornography, of 600 channels where once there were three. The social conservative will refer to these wayward anti-statists as “cultural libertarians,” by which he means libertines. And it will always be in his interest to argue that the libertarian, qua libertarian, should stay mute on issues of culture.

“True libertarianism is not cultural libertarianism,” the philosopher Edward Feser wrote on the paleolibertarian website 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.

Matthew Yglesias links and gives it a sentence:

Tim Lee and Kerry Howley are both making sense, but the upshot is that the most persuasive form of libertarianism isn’t really libertarianism at all.

Todd Seavey in the same group of essays:

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.

Howley’s thinking is potentially authoritarian (in a way that being passively bourgeois is not) because other people’s patterns of behavior will always limit your options one way or another and thus prompt demands for redress. Howley singles out a few hot-button, familiar issues such as race and gender, but the truth is that every time your fellow human beings decide, say, to be sports fans instead of talking about entomology with you, or to leave town en masse for the Bahamas (causing you to feel lonely), their actions have altered your life options. Tough luck. That’s called “other people exercising their freedom,” not “people oppressing you.”

Dylan Matthews at Tapped:

There are a few obvious problems here — namely, the fact that Seavey apparently doesn’t know what “voluntarily” means or else thinks that, say, the teen brides at fundamentalist Mormon compounds are freely choosing their own subjugation. More broadly, though, I don’t see how the examples he gives violate the libertarian value of defending property. Banning obesity discrimination does not deprive businesses of property. Nor does it increase businesses’ monetary obligations to the federal government, nor decrease the government’s obligations to protect businesses from harm. To be sure, such laws increase the power of government relative to employers, but that increase is dependent on the actions of the employees. The government only responds to lawsuits and complaints from those discriminated against, which if anything increases the freedom of action of those employees.

Seavey’s argument does make sense, however, if one views libertarianism not as an ideology devoted to personal liberty but to defending existing power structure. Banning obesity discrimination would not decrease individual liberty, but it would decrease the power of business management. Countering patriarchal attitudes more generally would be a great gain for individual freedom of action, but it would endanger the power of the patriarchy.

Why anyone would want to embrace a libertarianism having nothing to do with defending liberty in any real sense, however, I have no idea.


When Kerry Howley made the irrefutable and yet quixotic point that any proper concern with liberty, whether practical or, ahem, merely philosophical, must grapple with the strictures of cultural mores and social conventions, for they affect the lives and freedom of those individuals with whose liberty libertarianism supposedly concerns itself equally to and sometimes more than the official acts and proscriptions and promulgations of the government-même, I made no comment, because honestly, this again? I like and respect Kerry. She is probably smarter than I am. I am sure she looks better in heels. Her efforts along these lines are perhaps noble, but nonetheless doomed. It is not so much that they lack merit–on the merits, she is correct–as that they make a sort of category error. The problem is not that many libertarians are unwilling to consider the broader implications of their philosophy, but rather, that libertarianism is not a philosophy, not even a “political ideology,” as the more careful bet-hedgers might have it.

It is instead a lame, purely American third-party movement that sometimes appropriates the trappings of ideology in order to justify self-perpetuation in the face of a plurality-takes-all electoral system wholely inimical to minor parties. In reality, it is no more an ideology, let alone a philosophy, than is “Democrat” or “Republican.” It is moderately more consistent than either major American political party because it has no constituency. In the absence of a coalition, coherence. This is nothing to brag about.

James Joyner on Ioz’s post:

That about covers it.

Ilya Somin:

To my mind, there is no question that libertarians should care about some cultural values. However, Kerry’s argument could benefit from greater precision on several key issues. First, some cultural issues might well be an appropriate object of concern for libertarians as thinking individuals, but not a proper focus for libertarianism – which is, after all, a political ideology, not a comprehensive guide to the good life. Second, it is not clear what is meant by cultural values that restrict freedom. Finally, Kerry may underrate the extent to which there is no single set of cultural norms that is optimal for all people. There are both normative and tactical reasons for libertarians to avoid taking definitive positions on more than a limited number of cultural issues.


Kerry claims that most libertarians assume that “social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist.” In reality, numerous libertarians such as Adam Smith, Richard Cobden, and F.A. Hayek have harshly criticized nationalism for at least the last 200 years — largely because they recognized the close connection between nationalism, statism, and war. The same could be said with respect to patriarchy, which libertarians such as William Lloyd Garrison and Herbert Spencer, criticized back in the 19th century long before it became common to do so, on the grounds that it causes indefensible state-sponsored restrictions on the freedom of women. Today, few libertarians would deny that some cultural values are a proper object of libertarian criticism because they tend to promote government-sponsored restrictions on liberty. Libertarians would also condemn cultural values that justify aggressive uses of private force, such as, for example, sexism that promotes violence against women.

However, Kerry wants libertarians to go beyond this and focus on cultural values that supposedly undermine freedom even without any connection to state power or private violence. As she puts it, “Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun. Convention creates boundaries as thick as any border wall and ubiquitous as any surveillance state.”

This claim proves too much. Almost any cultural norm restricts people’s options to some extent in the sense that violators might face social pressure to conform, or that people might internalize the norm to such an extent that they don’t even consider the possibility of going against it. On the other hand, social conventions also increase personal freedom by enabling to people to cooperate in ways that might otherwise be difficult or impossible and to form communities that reflect their values.

Nonetheless, Kerry is probably right to suggest that some extremely restrictive social norms can radically reduce people’s choices and greatly diminish their freedom. However, I think that this problem is unlikely to be a serious one in a modern liberal society that has many different cultures and social institutions. People who feel dissatisfied or restricted by the social norms of their communities can seek out alternative social groups. In the modern United States, any large metropolitan area has an enormous range of subcultures to choose from. Even if you live in a relatively isolated rural area, you can still “vote with your feet” and move elsewhere, as most of the rural population has actually done over the last century. So long as people have exit rights in a liberal society, they are unlikely to be trapped in a set of restrictive social norms that radically constrict their freedom — unless of course they prefer it.

At some points, Kerry implies that people who follow highly traditionalistic lifestyles — especially women in patriarchal subcultures — might nonetheless be trapped without any meaningful possibility of exit. This is a genuine problem in backward societies with little education and mobility. But I’m skeptical that it is true to any great extent in the US or other advanced industrialized nations. Most American cultural traditionalists are well aware of the existence of alternative, more progressive cultures. Indeed, most live near people who adhere to them. If they nonetheless stick to their traditional values, it is unlikely to be because they have no choice. Indeed, the existence of a variety of different subcultures actually increases individual freedom, by giving people more lifestyle options to choose from.

For these reasons, libertarians have good reason to fear state-imposed cultural norms more than privately developed ones. The state can use its monopoly of force to compel all of society to adhere to a single set of norms, including dissenters who prefer a different vision. It is far more difficult for private institutions to do so.

Will Wilkinson:

As I see it, Kerry’s claim is that many libertarians fail to adequately acknowledge the fact (and it is a fact) that people are embedded in and shaped by culture, and that, as a consequence, many libertarians fail to grasp the extent to which cultural norms and social structure can limit individual liberty or work to deny some individuals the opportunity to develop the capacities needed to meaningfully exercise their liberty rights.

Sensibly enough, Kerry is careful to avoid the errors she thinks others are making. So she sees libertarians not as a cadre of uniquely penetrating intellects in communion with a set of timeless truths about the nature of a free society, but as a group of human beings who are, as we all are, historically and culturally embedded. She sees libertarianism not as a single, sharply-defined system of interrelated propositions, but as a syndrome of ideas and attitudes within and responsive to a changing culture around which a political identity and social movement has formed. This will, if she’s right about most libertarians, seem strange to most libertarians. 

Kerry’s argument, at least as I read it, is that if we really care about liberty, and are serious about seeing to it that all are able to enjoy the blessings of liberty, we cannot just assume that everything we need know about cultivating a climate of liberty is already accurately and fully captured by the historically and culturally conditioned ideas and attitudes that have come to characterize most self-described libertarians. Because, again,  many libertarians have tended to underestimate just how thoroughly socialized and culture-bound we all are, and have thus given far too little weight to cultural threats to liberty.

Kerry says nothing that even hints at the idea that libertarianism is “a comprehensive guide to the good life.” Her essay proceeds on the assumption that political ideologies, like people, exist in a cultural context, and that libertarianism, as it has developed in response to the exigencies of history, fails to adequately recognize the influence of cultural context on individual liberty. I think it’s pretty clear that Kerry is arguing that, insofar as a libertarian’s commitment to libertarianism is motivated by devotion to the value of liberty, then cultural constraints on liberty deserve more attention than they’ve traditionally had from libertarians.

If you think cultural products such as political ideologies evolve over time, you won’t see the content of “libertarianism” as sharply defined and fixed once and for all. To assert, as Ilya does, that “some cultural issues might well be appropriate object of concern for libertarians as thinking individuals, but not a proper focus for libertarianism,” pretty much begs the question. The claim is that these cultural issues ought to be objects of concern to libertarians because they are matters of liberty that libertarian have overlooked. Kerry’s asking libertarians to care more about the conditions under which people develop the capacity to meaningfully exercise freedom. She’s asking libertarians to not so blithely assume that social relations of exploitation and domination enforced by state power for hundreds of years are no longer matters of liberty simply because the enforcement of longstanding racist and sexist norms was privatized a few decades ago. She’s not asking libertarians to save the whales.

Jamelle at The League:

As you’re wondering why it is that so many commentators have had a hard time getting Kerry’s core point, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that libertarianism – as a political movement – is overwhelmingly white and male.  We tend to think of the racial composition of a political movement as just having electoral consequences, but it also has a profound effect on the core ideology of said movement.  At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, marginalized voices – racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, etc. – are overrepresented among liberals and as such, the left that has been forced to grapple with the issues and concerns of marginalized communities in such a way as to make liberalism better equipped to deal with these issues.

It seems that insofar that libertarians experience oppression or constraints on their liberty, it is through the actions of the state rather than through culture, which makes sense. Libertarians are overwhelmingly white and male, and in a culture which highly values whiteness and maleness, they will face relatively fewer overt cultural constraints on their behavior than their more marginalized fellow-travelers.  Or in other words, a fair number of libertarians are operating with a good deal of unexamined privilege, and it’s this, along with the extremely small number of women and minorities who operate within the libertarian framework, which makes grappling with cultural sources of oppression really hard for libertarians.  After all – socially speaking – being a white guy in the United States isn’t exactly hard and that’s doubly true if you are well off.

Kerry Howley responds to some of the comments:

A political philosophy of limited government is a means to an end. For a great many though by no means all libertarians, the end is individual liberty, understood as the ability to pursue one’s singular aims. For some, support of limited government is, as Tim Lee puts it, “one facet of a broader liberal worldview.” It would be beyond pointless to construct an argument about what supporters of small government “ought” to care about. My Reason piece argues merely that supporters of small government who care about liberty ought to care also about culture, in part because culture and individualism are very often at odds.

Ilya says we cannot know what cultural norms are conducive to liberty broadly construed. What are his evidentiary standards? They are clearly far more stringent in the social realm than in the realm of property rights. We can know which cultural norms are conducive to liberty in much the same way we can known which pattern of property allocation is conducive to liberty. Are we sure in either case? No. Also, evolution is just a theory.

Here Ilya again wants precision, but here again bright lines are perilous to draw. It’s hard to say at exactly what age a girl can freely choose to marry. This is not a good reason for someone who cares about individualism to be agnostic on the issue of child marriage.


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One response to “Don’t Ask The Libertarians To Save The Whales

  1. Pingback: Culture and/of liberty: Howley and Hayek « Thinking Beyond Competition

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