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 their own values without fear of repression by the others.

The same point applies to many nonreligious cultural disputes. For example, people often face tradeoffs between work and commitments to their family, friends, and communities. Individual libertarians quite properly have strong opinions on this issue. But libertarianism as a political ideology need not go beyond the argument that such conflicts are likely to be better addressed by private sector institutions and civil society than by government.

II. Which Cultural Values Restrict Freedom?

Kerry argues that libertarians should oppose cultural values that undermine freedom. It is hard to disagree with that in the abstract. The difficult part is determining which values those are.

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.

III. Libertarianism and the Case for Cultural Diversity.

Ultimately, the difference between Kerry and her critics may come down to differences over the extent to which libertarians should support cultural diversity. In my view, there is no one set of cultural norms that is best for everyone. I would not want to live under highly traditionalistic norms like those of Mormons or Orthodox Jews. However, it is quite possible that adherence to those norms might provide a happy life for people whose preferences are very different from mine. I have met a number of highly educated people from both of these groups who seem to be very happy with their lives, and are fully aware of the available alternatives. It’s hard to conclude that their lifestyle choices are necessarily more misguided than Kerry’s or mine. Traditionalistic subcultures have much to offer people who are highly risk-averse, those who greatly value a strong sense of community, and those who prize stability, among others.

Kerry writes that she favors “A culture of liberty [that] would . . . beget [a] raucous, plenitudinous hodgepodge” of different subcultures. To that extent, we agree. However, she also argues that we must combat “authoritarian cultures” that restrict freedom, by which she seems to mean primarily socially conservative ones. This suspicion of traditionalistic cultures is understandable. For much of human history, state power forcibly imposed various traditional values on women, religious dissenters, and others. As discussed above, libertarians should fight against those elements of traditional culture that still seek to use coercion to impose conservative norms on the unwilling. I have often criticized these aspects of social conservatism myself (e.g. – here and here). The same goes for the statist authoritarian elements of left-wing political correctness. But it is a mistake to conclude that just because socially conservative cultural norms shouldn’t be imposed on everyone, that means that they shouldn’t be voluntarily followed by anyone. In addition to giving individuals a wider range of options at any given point in time, the existence of both liberal and socially conservative also fosters competition between norms that promotes the emergence of better norms over time.

These points are distinct from Todd Seavey’s tactical argument in his critique of Kerry, where he points out that identification with one set of cultural values is likely to drive away potential allies for libertarianism. If libertarians are seen as aligned with cultural liberalism, it is likely to alienate cultural conservatives, and vice versa. Linking libertarianism to a narrow cultural agenda would be a mistake similar to Ayn Rand’s insistence that libertarianism entails atheism – a stance that did much to alienate potential supporters who were religious. At the same time, cultural “wedge issues” sometimes do make for good political strategy.

Be that as it may, I am not merely arguing that libertarians should support cultural diversity for tactical reasons. Rather, they should do it because it is genuinely the right thing to do. We cannot endorse all cultures completely. Libertarianism is still at odds with cultural values that promote statism or the aggressive use of private violence. And individual libertarians can certainly work to advance their particular religious and moral values. But as a political ideology, libertarianism should celebrate diversity.

UPDATE: I suppose I should mention that I refer to Kerry Howley by her first name because she and I are friends in the real world outside cyberspace (and hopefully still will be after she reads this post:)), whereas I am not similarly acquainted with the other writers in the Reason debate and therefore I refer to them more formally. Blogosphere norms about the use of first names vs. last names are constantly evolving, so it is not always easy to determine what is appropriate and what isn’t. This is, perhaps, one of those areas where decentralized cultural evolution can generate better social norms over time.