Tag Archives | Libertarianism and Culture

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

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Libertarianism and Culture

Reason has a debate about whether libertarians should “care about cultural values.” Kerry Howley argues that libertarians should place far more emphasis on combating cultures that supposedly undermine freedom, while her critics (Todd Seavey and Daniel McCarthy), are skeptical.

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.

I. Individual Libertarians May have Good Reason to Care about Issues that are not a Proper Focus of Libertarianism.

One of the most important values issues that libertarians – and everyone else – should properly care about is the question of whether God exists and, if so, what he commands us to do. However, as a political ideology, libertarianism need not take any position on the issue of God’s existence and the meaning of his commands (if any). Not only is this good political strategy, it also shows proper respect for the limits of what a political ideology can accomplish. Rather, the political ideology of libertarianism should focus on the ways in which strictly limiting the power of government can make adherents of many different faiths better off by allowing each to live by [...]

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