Libertarianism and Culture, Round II

Kerry Howley has responded to my post criticizing her essay on libertarianism and culture. I don’t think her response actually answers most of my main points, however. Kerry criticizes me for asking for a “bright line rule” about what cultural values libertarians should care about:

The lack of libertarian tolerance for ambiguity is an unfortunate thing. “Be more precise,” Ilya says. He says this of a jeremiad against bright-line-ism. There are no bright lines, even within the domains Ilya thinks most clearly delineated. When is coercion justified with regard to property? Libertarians disagree. What constitutes property rightfully obtained? Libertarians disagree.

There is a great deal of room between an absolute bright line rule and the degree of imprecision present in Kerry’s original essay. On one interpretation of her argument, almost all cultural norms are threats to freedom because all constrain our choices to at least some degree. On another, only a very narrow range are (perhaps those that leave people with little or no exit option from highly constricted lifestyles). As to what “libertarian” means, I agree that there is disagreement about it. However, to my mind, the term as commonly used delineates people who advocate either strictly limited government or none at all. Thus, libertarianism is primarily a political philosophy about the appropriate role of government in society, not a comprehensive ethical system that covers all the important issues in human life.

Kerry next claims that a concern about culture is essential not to all libertarians, but merely those who are libertarian primarily because they care about liberty:

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.

I appreciate the clarification. But even with respect to those libertarians who “care about liberty,” Kerry’s argument isn’t entirely successful. Liberty and individualism are not synonymous. For many of us, the liberty we care about includes the liberty to choose to live in cultural communities that aren’t necessarily individualistic. As I suggested in my original post, most of those who live in conservative subcultures in the modern West are not trapped there. They are exercising their liberty no less than Kerry and I are by choosing a different life. To use Kerry’s terminology, people who exercise “individual liberty . . . understood as the ability to pursue one’s singular aims” need not always value “individualism.” Moreover, I am one of those people who is a libertarian because I care about happiness as well as liberty. In a world of diverse people with very different preferences, some will find their greatest happiness by exercising the liberty to live in a socially conservative, nonindividualistic culture.

Kerry somewhat misunderstands me when she says that “Ilya says we cannot know what cultural norms are conducive to liberty broadly construed.” Rather, I argued that different cultural norms may be optimal for different people and groups, and that a libertarian society should therefore accept cultural diversity, at least within very broad limits. I also suggested that such cultural diversity actually increase our freedom by giving us a wider range of lifestyle choices – including conservative ones.

Finally, Kerry states that her essay was aimed at a very narrow target: “[T]he minority of libertarians, like [Todd] Seavey, for whom government is a leviathan so totalizing that thought beyond its influence is rendered impossible.”

She now says that she accuses only this small group of believing that ““social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist.” I appreciate the clarification, and I am sorry for misinterpreting her position (which, in my view, wasn’t stated nearly as clearly in her original essay). However, it now seems as if she is aiming at virtually a null set. After all, even those libertarians most focused on combating state power (e.g. – Murray Rothbard) admitted that nondefensive private violence and theft should also be opposed. And I would be surprised if Seavey himself thought that libertarians can afford to be completely indifferent to nationalism or patriarchy, given that both have historically promoted large-scale state-sponsored oppression.

In sum, I fear that further clarification is necessary. If all Kerry is saying is that libertarians who care about liberty shouldn’t completely ignore cultural values or private actions that might threaten freedom, I don’t disagree with her, and neither would any other libertarian commentator I know of. For example in my original post, I noted that some cultural values are problematic from a libertarian standpoint because they promote statism or aggressive private violence. This is perfectly compatible with believing that in the modern world government power is the single greatest threat to liberty, and that libertarians should therefore devote the bulk of their time and effort to combating that threat (areas like Somalia, where no meaningful state exists, are exceptions to this generalization). If, however, Kerry wants to argue that there is a wide range of cultural values that libertarians should be against because they imperil freedom even when no violence is used or threatened, then the criticisms I made in my original post still apply.

UPDATE: Will Wilkinson has joined the debate, replying to this post and my previous one. Will, like Kerry, is a thoughtful commentator. But I fear that his post suffers from some of the same problems as Kerry’s reply. Like Kerry, Will argues that all he’s saying is that people are affected by cultural values and that some of these cultural values may be threats to freedom:

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.

As noted above, no serious libertarian thinker denies these points, at least not at this level of generality. The more contentious question is whether and to what extent cultural norms pose a threat to liberty even when they aren’t backed by either state power or private violence.

Will also emphasizes that libertarian ideology is in part the product of its social environment and that it can and should evolve over time. I don’t deny this, and I doubt many other libertarians would either. The more difficult question is what direction the ideology should evolve in. In my view, libertarians are right to believe that government power is by far the greatest threat to liberty and happiness in the modern world, and that cultural norms unconnected to either state or private violence are, in most places (especially the developed world), a relatively minor problem by comparison. Moreover, as argued in my previous posts, I think the availability of socially conservative cultures of a kind Will and Kerry might decry actually increases both freedom and happiness so long as people have reasonable exit options from them.

Will further argues that even if I am right to conclude that in the United States today, people can freely choose to leave restrictive cultures, that was not true of the United States in earlier eras or other countries around the world today. These are much bigger issue than can be addressed in an update to a blog post. In general, my view on these questions that 1) the exit options in the US of decades ago or other countries today would have been much better if the restrictive norms in question were not backed by state power, and and 2) to the extent that they would have remained a problem, it is in large part because of low levels of economic development, which constricted people’s mobility and access to information. As I see it, the best way to combat these problems is to promote limits on government power economic growth – a package very similar to the traditional libertarian agenda.

Finally, Will suggests at one point that, in the modern US, libertarians should oppose even those social norms that constrict liberty in ways that fall short of “radical” restrictions: “I’d submit that one or two steps shy of radically constricted freedom isn’t free enough.” In my view, once we get to that point, I think it is best to rely on people choosing for themselves in the private sector. What looks to Will like “constricted freedom” may well be people exercising their freedom to choose a nonindividualistic or socially conservative lifestyle.