Libertarians and Diversity (or lack thereof)

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39 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    This is not intended to defend the failings of libertarianism in the arena of diversity (indeed, they are legion) but to explain them.

    Most libertarians believe that rights are seated in the individual (rather than granted by the society and they certainly would not believe that a society could have rights… the rights of a society? what would that even mean?). This means that they agree that a society does not have the right to deny, say, gay marriage to a couple of gay guys. The two gay guys, however, have the right to hold a ceremony at the Unitarian Church, buy a house together, say “we’re married” when they introduce themselves to people, and enjoy quiet evenings in front of the fireplace together until they grow old. More power to them.

    But they also agree that Baptist Ministers have the right to picket the Unitarian Church (so long as they’re on the sidewalk), picket in front of the house (so long as they’re on the sidewalk), give sermons explaining the nuances of Leviticus 20:13, and to hold a party once the gay guys decide to move to a more cosmopolitan town.

    “Of course they’re (redacted) (redacteds) and I don’t support what they’re doing but they have the right to do that.”

    It’s analagous to a hardcore pacifism. When Orwell complained that pacifists were objectively pro-fascist, that wasn’t entirely fair… and yet…

    Well, the libertarians have a similar thing going on. They’re stuck defending the rights of bigots to be bigots (and pointing out that, of course, the bigots are (redacted) (redacteds) doesn’t do a whole lot to mitigate anything that comes after that).

    In an effort to avoid the camel’s nose of telling people how to live, they allow for “chilling effects” to occur.

    I don’t know what the answer to that, exactly, would be. Mockery of the bigots, maybe.Report

    • Sarah in reply to Jaybird says:

      I think this is the key thing, actually: libertarianism in its non-cultural version is “hardcore pacifism” on issues of culture. But when you’re a hardcore pacifist, you allow other people to make war. The effect may be a bloodier world. A libertarian who refuses to take the side of cultural tolerance contributes, in effect, to a less free world.Report

      • Sarah in reply to Sarah says:

        Mockery of the bigots is exactly, I think, what Kerry has in mind. You can do a lot against bigotry short of changing laws. You can change minds and norms and assumptions.
        Occasionally you’ll run into situations where rights conflict — say, the Civil Rights Act, which arguably stepped on property rights in order to defeat Jim Crow. Here we ask, “Does libertarianism forbid this proposed law to promote a culture of liberty?” I think sometimes it doesn’t. My common sense says that racial discrimination is a bigger threat to individual freedom. But those are the hard cases.

        Kerry’s primarily talking about the easy cases. The “radical pacifist” libertarians think it’s permissible to wave a sign that says “Vote No on Prop. 8” but they won’t encourage you to do so. Kerry will. There are a LOT of possible noncoercive actions in pursuit of a freer culture that even a non-cultural libertarian would find permissible. Some of them are just as simple as making the mental and verbal habit of examining privilege, and encouraging others to do so. Libertarians should be doing that.

        Sometimes I say I’m a “liberal” rather than a “libertarian” and it’s mainly because a lot of self-described libertarians totally ignore Jamelle’s “systematic cultural conditions restricting individual liberty.”

        The other thing I like about the essay is her rebuttal at the end, which talks about learning and children. Critical thinking is learned. A desire for individual autonomy is learned. You will not have an effectively free population if you don’t promulgate basic ideas like “Decide for yourself” and “Nobody has the right to run your life.” People taught otherwise from childhood never develop the capacity to be free.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Sarah says:

          But, and here is the problem, once we start hammering out “no, no, this is a matter of taste” vs “this is a matter of morality” and start, oh, passing laws to enforce the matters of morality only (leaving the matters of taste up to the individual), one then will (inevitably) find that what one has deemed a matter of taste is now, by law, a matter of morality (and you’d better not partake!!!) and what one considers a matter of morality is left to fester because, well, it’s difficult and it’s better for everybody in the short run if it’s left optional.

          And the next thing you know, you’re organizing and jockeying for position and doing what one can to make sure that the right laws pass and the right laws are filibustered because if you don’t play the game, you’re definitely going to lose it.

          And… next thing you know… you’re no longer liberal or libertarian but just another lobbyist squabbling to make sure that the interest group that best represents you keeps your piece of the pie at least as big as it always has been (and, ideally, makes it bigger).

          The hardcore pacifism is an attempt to keep the nose out of the tent.

          Which is not a defense, of course, as much as an explanation.Report

          • Sarah in reply to Jaybird says:

            Well, I understand that. That’s why I distinguished between changing laws (the hard cases) and changing things other than the laws. Law is by no means the only way to affect the way humans interact. You could be a successful and outspoken feminist, for instance, without once calling for the use of state force; lots of the things feminists do have nothing to do with laws.

            The fact that we confuse cultural activism with “making sure the right laws pass” is a symptom of the assumption that nothing can be done except through government. Mill was big on “moral suasion” — the non-coercive promotion of better social norms, through communication and activism. That can be powerful.Report

    • Andy Smith in reply to Jaybird says:

      “they certainly would not believe that a society could have rights… the rights of a society? what would that even mean?”

      Isn’t America justifying intervention in Afghanistan (and other places) on the grounds that its right to survive is threatened? And isn’t that right opposed to the right of individual Americans who end up serving there not to be put in harm’s way? Or how about society’s right to bring Roman Polanski to justice, opposed to the right of the individual he raped not to have this long-past event raked up again? Or the rights of the county I live in to educate children, opposed to my right not to pay taxes on my property. Etc.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Andy Smith says:

        Oh, people *APPEAL* to the rights of society all the time.

        We have a right to forbid gay marriage, after all. It’s in order to protect society. Or English only. Or the death penalty. Or whatever.

        We as a society have the right to enforce our will upon the weaker members. To protect themselves from themselves. It’s for their own good. We, as a society, have decided that.

        Oh, I know that such things *HAPPEN*.

        I just don’t acknowledge that societies have “rights” at all. Individuals do. Societies? Eh. I don’t see “society”. I just see a bunch of people.Report

        • Andy Smith in reply to Jaybird says:

          “I just don’t acknowledge that societies have “rights” at all. Individuals do. Societies? Eh. I don’t see “society”. I just see a bunch of people.”

          You’re saying two things here: a) societies don’t have rights; b) societies don’t exist (at least not in your perspective). I think you have to maintain b) in order to support a).

          But b) is surely unsupportable. If society doesn’t exist, how would you explain language, which has no meaning or even possible existence among isolated individuals? The existence of language establishes that there are phenomena that only exist through the interactions of individuals. They have no life whatsoever except under these conditions. One individual can’t be separated, even theoretically, from other individuals. Society, at a minimum, is composed of these interactions.

          Once society as a phenomenon is established, I don’t see how we can avoid the question of its rights. (Indeed, given the enormous effect language has, it’s very difficult to argue that there are individuals. The supposed individuals who debate on this forum are much better viewed as dynamic synthesizers of the views of dozens, hundreds or thousands of other “individuals”). We can argue about what these rights should be, how far they extend, and so forth, but once we recognize the existence of something, we also have to recognize that certain actions may favor it, while others may not.

          None of this is meant to deny that people do appeal to society, frequently, to buttress some individual claim. But just because this appeal may be abused does not mean that society and its rights don’t exist.Report

    • Katherine in reply to Jaybird says:

      All right, let’s say rights are a quality of the individual rather than the society. And I agree with the rights you’ve outlined in your post.

      But the rights of individuals can still conflict. What’s more important: my right to compete for a job, or an employer’s right to hire who he likes, even to the extent of refusing to hire any women? The right of a restaurant owner to say who can use his business, or the right of a black woman to go where she pleases for dinner? Doesn’t even a libertarian need to accept the need for regulation in some instances to protect the rights of people against discrimination? If all the law schools refused to admit women, the fact that government didn’t legally prohibit women from becoming lawyers would be fairly meaniningless. Even in the examples in your post, which are more contemporary, the government has to act in order to ensure the marriage of the gay couple comes with the same rights (hospital visitation, tax filing, etc.) as the marriage of a straight couple.Report

  2. TPine says:


    I agree with the core of your argument. Many libertarians are, indeed, white and male and hold what you consider to be a bigoted point of view. I personally believe that this is related to the communities in which libertarianism thrives, i.e. communities that are socioeconomically and racially homogenous. The social factors that make libertarianism so attractive to “salt of the earth” people are the same social factors which drive homophobia and racism.

    However, you should realize that there is a functional aspect to these bigoted societal views. Homophobia and miscegenation are treated as extremely deviant in these societies because a homogenous group provides a measure of stability that allows the society to survive a harsh natural environment. Individuals must conform to the needs of the group for basic biological reasons: the human need for food and shelter.

    While I disagree with racism and homophobia, I don’t feel that it is my place to judge such communities for their social mores. Because of my own cultural framework, I’m obviously going to privilege the things that I believe are correct and criticize those that I think are wrong. That’s easy. What’s difficult is trying to examine certain practices in a deeper fashion to understand why they exist in the culture in the first place. Traditions do not develop by accident; they are a product of some sort of individual or community need.

    What bothers me about this editorial is the implicit assumption in your last sentence: all whites have it easy in America, ipso facto. Where does socioeconomic status come into play here? You’re very hung up on race but ignore that there are other factors that drive moral, political and philosophical beliefs. You come dangerously close to saying that a middle-class black American has a significantly tougher life than a lower-class white American.

    I’m not going to say that race is not an extremely important part of the equation (because it definitely is) but race is not the only variable. I have a feeling that you included that last sentence to stir the pot and bit and piss off the white guys to create a discussion. I admire the rhetorical technique but it does detract from the point that you’re trying to make. I can understand its use if you were asked to speak on Fox News but in this sort of forum it comes close to racism on your part.Report

    • Jamelle in reply to TPine says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      I think though that you’re misreading my point: it’s not so much that I think libertarians – as mostly white and male – are therefore also racist and bigoted. Rather, I think it’s that libertarians are suffering from a kind of cultural isolation -there aren’t many marginalized folks in their movement – and as a result of their own cultural privilege, they are blind to and have a problem grasping cultural pressures on liberty. What’s more, and as Jaybird and Sarah pointed out, libertarians are cultural pacifists. Together, this leaves libertarians in a really difficult place when confronted with an argument like Howley’s.

      With regards to white men and privilege: I’m not saying that being a white dude makes you automatically successful, but it is true that the two qualities are culturally valuableReport

      • TPine in reply to Jamelle says:

        Ok, thanks for the clarification. I agree that many libertarians, especially in America, suffer from this self-selective syndrome that isolates them culturally.

        Also, I would say that I disagree with the assertion that all libertarians are cultural pacifists. I consider myself a libertarian with a slight progressive bent; I think that is still a legitimate hybrid.Report

  3. Sam M says:

    First, isn’t it strange for progressives to be maiking this argument right now? Seeing that you are all white and living in Portland. Or something.

    More seriously, I do think it’s worth mentioning that, while libertarians really are predominantly white and male, the movement also tends to be incredibly gay. Even at the highest levels. In my expereince, at least.

    Finally, one problem I am have with Howley’s piece is that I am not quite sure what she wants anyone to do. OK. So poor females in China suffer from arranged marriages. If I am going to work at Cato tomorrow, what, exactly, do I do to address that situation? What tools are at my disposal?

    And when to select which cultural restrictions to “object to?” People in my town would certainly look down on me if I were to hit the town and bed a bunch of women. Because I am married and I have a few kids. Clearly, the social norm working against my promiscuity is a powerful thing. It restricts my actions to a huge degree. But is it a bad thing? I think probably not. Is the Amish restrictions against motor vehicles a terrible thing? I don’t really see how.

    A few years ago, in fact, there was a guy in my town who had a wife and four or five kids. He stepped out on his wife. The town basically banished him. Nobody would talk to him. He had to move. He lost everything. In effect, the social norm restricted his sexual freedom. When he ignored the norm, the local culture completely ruined his life. Utterly.

    Um… Good. Right?

    So how do we decide when these restrictions are good and when they are bad. I think, at this stage in the culture, we can agree that demanding all women remain virgins until they are married is unfair and unworkable. At the same time, I am pretty sure that the social norm that works against gangbangs for 14-year-olds is a good thing.

    Most things operate in a gray area, of course. Women in my town are more likely to stay at home with the kids. And more likely to want to. This doesn’t happen in a vaccuum. Certain signals lead to these norms. Are all of these signals vicious paternalism?Report

  4. Is there a political culture that isn’t dominated, in at least some measure, by white males? I’m seriously asking because my own experience in GOP politics was with predominantly white males. And, to a lesser degree, my work at a progressive think tank seemed to show that most people in that world were white. In addition, both cultures also tended to skew middle to upper income.Report

  5. Ryan says:

    Nothing to add, really, but I agree wholeheartedly. One of the great weaknesses of libertarians is that they don’t take seriously the ways in which non-state power threaten liberty in ways that state power can sometimes help correct (see the Civil Rights Act, for example). And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that very few libertarians have ever been denied housing or a job because of the color of their skin.Report

    • Bob in reply to Ryan says:

      “…libertarians…don’t take seriously the ways in which non-state power threaten liberty…”

      It’s not that they are unaware of these threats to liberty it’s that they don’t care, or perhaps a kinder way to say it, they see no place for government intervention. Libertarians know some folk don’t like other folk and will oppress them in anyway they can but since rights only exist at an individual level no mechanism exists to remedy the situation. Libertarians may not go so far as declaring all government illegitimate but apparently by libertarian lights government is illegitimate when acting to mitigate social, non-state, ills.Report

  6. Allogenes says:

    May it not simply be the case that Libertarianism attracts people from relatively advantaged subcultures, and repels others, precisely because of what it says as an ideology – that advantages gained “naturally” are OK and that collective action to aid the disadvantaged is not? It seems to me the arrow of causation is at least as likely to point in that direction as the opposite.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Allogenes says:

      Voluntary collective action is great and we need more of it.

      Coerced collective action is not.Report

      • Ryan in reply to Jaybird says:

        But you’re more than willing to endorse – or, rather, offer very little criticism of – coerced collective action when the agent doing the coercion isn’t the state. The most maddening thing about libertarians, which is partially Howley’s point, is that you tend to act as if the only collective entity that can ever use force is the state. Or, alternatively and perhaps more fairly, as if the only kind of coercion that can take place is the kind that involves guns.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Ryan says:

          How would you suggest we eliminate coercion?

          Or, I suppose, if you don’t want that, how would you like to sort between “this is the good coercion that we totally need to protect our society” and “that is the bad coercion that no longer serves a useful purpose”?

          Once you’ve done that, maybe we could go back to my first question wrt the bad.Report

          • Ryan in reply to Jaybird says:

            I wouldn’t suggest that we can eliminate coercion. People’s hearts are neither good nor pure enough (a) to keep from coercing each other when given the opportunity, or (b) for a society to function in any sane way without coercion at some points. Man is a social animal, and the idea that we can all just do our own groovy thing will constantly run up against the fact that we manifestly don’t just want to do our own groovy things and that we also tend to make a mess when we try.

            As for sorting between good coercion and bad: isn’t that sort of the entire project of political philosophy? I don’t think I would ever say that it’s wrong, in principle, to oppose coercion conducted by the state, but I also think that it’s somewhat short-sighted to fixate on that particular aspect without appreciating the ways in which some kinds of coercion appear to be more ruinous to freedom.

            Obviously I could spend a lot of pixels on describing just where modern liberalism and libertarianism diverge on the question of what classical liberalism is really about (and the reasons I think modern liberalism is a more authentically liberal vision than most non-Wilkinsonian libertarianism), but you know all that already. All I’m saying is that I think libertarianism has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that most people’s intuition seems to be that legislation requiring equal opportunity hiring/housing/whatever is better than allowing private business/home owners to discriminate on the basis of race. I wouldn’t say I’m a strong moral intuitionist or anything, but I do think it’s worth thinking hard about some questions in a posteriori ways.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Ryan says:

              “without appreciating the ways in which some kinds of coercion appear to be more ruinous to freedom.”

              I appreciate it. Indeed I do. But… well, I’ll use “Intelligent Design” as an example. There was a point in time where I supported a national curriculum that failed to mention “design” in any way, shape, or form in Biology class. Let the philosophers discuss philosophy in philosophy 101, let the Biologists discuss Biology in Biology.

              Sure, everybody can get behind that, right?

              Then I started doing some research in some other area entirely and this led to that led to this other thing led to reading about Lysenko in Russia.

              Anyway, I reached the conclusion that, no matter how certain I was that I was right, I might be. Indeed, the certainty is part of the problem.

              That link there has links to a Radiolab story. It’s worth listening to. (I’d like to flatter myself by saying that the link itself is chock full of interesting reading.)

              It’s fairly easy for local control to say “hey, this isn’t working, we should try something else”. If you put together a national policy and it works really well up here and really awful down there, you will then have a problem with the down theres saying “this isn’t working” and the up theres saying “you’re not implementing it correctly, you’re sabotaging it, you’re acting as wreckers” rather than say “maybe you should be allowed to try something else”.

              And that’s without getting into the whole “we ought to act as good and decent colonial powers to those lesser cultures” dynamic that pops up.Report

              • Ryan in reply to Jaybird says:

                Intelligent Design is almost certainly too easy an example. So what if a bunch of schools adopt curricula teaching things that are false in biology? We probably won’t get a lot of world-class biologists out of a place like that, but the chances it does any real, deep harm to anyone are pretty small. Obviously it constrains the freedom of children, but we all know children are the property of their parents and the school board, so their freedom isn’t very meaningful.

                But there are a lot of places where this kind of thinking, which sounds so nice in principle, turns out to be pretty hideous. So what if Birmingham wants to systematically oppress its black population? So what if they don’t allow black citizens to vote or voice grievances, and they turn hoses (or nooses) on the ones who try? It’s easier to fix that at a local level than to fix it when the federal government gets all out of control insisting that black people have too many rights. I mean, one day, they might even have a federal law that says people who own property can’t refuse to sell it to black people, and then what has the world come to?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Ryan says:

                When people start using violence against others, I’d say that that *IS* an area where the state needs to get involved and start protecting the Civil Rights of its citizens.

                If I hadn’t been clear on that, let me apologize.Report

              • Ryan in reply to Jaybird says:

                No, I’m sorry. I was pushing too hard in the wrong direction. My particular complaint is that you think violence is the only kind of coercion that can motivate state action. I think that’s crazy.Report

              • Bob in reply to Ryan says:

                Wouldn’t we all.Report

              • Bob in reply to Jaybird says:

                So take the example of literacy tests for voting. The white is given a passage to read and does so, qualified. The black is ask to say how many jellybeans in the jar. Failed to be within 50, disqualified. No violence no harm? No state action needed?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Bob says:

                Is a civil right being violated? It certainly seems to me that denial of voting rights would qualify.

                The state has a responsibility to protect the Rights of its citizens. I suppose I would be willing to entertain the argument that the right to vote is merely a privilege extended to people who meet a basic set of standards (the ability to, for example, register) but I don’t see how having different standards for different (groups of) people would qualify. (But I say that as one of those nuts who thinks that ex-felons who are no longer in prison ought to be able to vote and would be willing to discuss whether people in prison ought be able to vote.)Report

              • Bob in reply to Bob says:

                “…but I don’t see how having different standards for different (groups of) people would qualify.”

                I’m sorry, “qualify” how, meet what standard? Was the jellybean test for blacks within the power of government to overrule? Was the city of Selma within it power to register voters acting correctly to administer the jellybean test to blacks only?

                And you avoided the violence question.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Bob says:

                Did the jellybean test get applied to both whites and black indiscriminately or was it used to deny voting rights to one group of people?

                If Rights are being denied (even non-violently denied), how is that not something where the government ought not intervene?

                If you’re arguing that “voting” is not a right (or not a right for people of African descent), I’d be willing to read the argument…Report

              • Bob in reply to Bob says:

                My understanding of JB test is that it was used selectively to keep blacks from voting.

                “If you’re arguing that “voting” is not a right (or not a right for people of African descent), I’d be willing to read the argument…”

                I’m making the argument that violence is not the only criteria that should be used in determining when state action is needed.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Bob says:

                The State ought protect the Civil Rights of its citizens.

                If you want to argue that societies can grant or deny or whatever rights to its members as an emergent property, I’d be down with that. I disagree but it’s certainly not a novel theory.Report

              • Bob in reply to Jaybird says:

                I can’t attest from personal experience if such tests occurred but such stories are common.