You can go your own way
Many readers are undoubtedly suspicious of self-indulgent exercises in libertarian wankery, but this excellent dialogue from Reason raises some interesting questions about the nature of governance, freedom and culture.
As someone who grew up in a pretty liberal milieu, I instinctively found myself nodding along to Kerry Howley’s comprehensive vision of cultural libertarianism. But I’m not sold yet. The reason, I think, is that I am less and less confident in my own assumptions about what freedom really means. The example Howley mentions to buttress her argument – the Chinese women who flee a repressive, patriarchal village for the bright lights of the big city – is undoubtedly moving. But not every scenario offers such a clear-cut choice between freedom and coercion.
A child raised in a religious household, for example, has some ill-defined right not to be brainwashed by fundamentalist parents. The parents, however, have some equally ill-defined countervailing right to guide and nurture their child. How do you assess these competing claims? Cultural libertarians will balk at the idea of children being indoctrinated by adults. Traditionalists may be more sympathetic to the parents’ prerogatives.
This scenario isn’t some far-out hypothetical, either. It’s an inevitable consequence of applying abstract ideas like freedom to the knotty problems of everyday life.
Maybe this is a cop-out, but instead of convening the grand counsel to decide on some unitary vision of what freedom means, I’d rather give people license to experiment and hash things out among themselves. Maybe your town is determined to become the next Las Vegas. Maybe the local zoning board is more interested in banning strip clubs and adult theaters. I think localities should have a lot more leeway to define their own peculiar vision of what freedom really means, precisely because the day-to-day work of marrying liberty, culture and government is so fraught with difficulty.
Seasteading – another libertarian experiment – is premised on the idea that floating city-states would dramatically lower the barrier to entry for government-creation, encouraging innovation and experimentation among seaborne communities. The end-result would be a world of competing ideas about governance that – instead of inhabiting dank classrooms or obscure Internet message boards – will actually stand or fall on their own practical merits. I am very doubtful that any floating cities will be launched in my lifetime, but the idea behind the venture is compelling: let loose the creativity of humankind on the business of government, and may the best system win.
If floating city-states don’t work, however, a return to subsidiarity may be the next best thing. We already have thousands of venues – towns, cities, counties – for political experimentation. Why not turn them loose, and may the best locality win?
(All of which is to say that I agree with Daniel McCarthy, whose response to Howley does a much better job of explaining this pluralistic vision.)