Libertarians traditionally have viewed coercion, especially when institutionalized in the form of government, as the main threat to freedom. But cultural pressures outside the state also can restrict people’s ability to live as they please. Is that another limit on liberty worth criticizing, or is it a function of voluntary choices?

In the first essay below, Contributing Editor Kerry Howley argues for a wider vision of human liberty, one that acknowledges government is not the only threat to freedom. In a reply, Todd Seavey says fighting for property rights is difficult enough without taking on cultural baggage. In another response, Daniel McCarthy agrees that culture and liberty are linked but suggests that freedom demands a more pluralistic view of acceptable cultures than Howley’s vision might allow.

We’re All Cultural Libertarians 

Freedom is about more than just the absence of government.

Kerry Howley

“It was amazing to me how quickly she overturned the power structure within her family,” Leslie Chang writes in Factory Girls, her 2008 book on internal migration within China. Chang is marveling at Min, a 17-year-old who left her family farm to find work in a succession of factories in the rapidly urbanizing city of Dongguan. Had Min never left home, she would have been expected to marry a man from a nearby village, to bear his children, and to accept her place in a tradition that privileges husbands over wives. But months after Min found work in Dongguan, she was already advising her father on financial planning, directing her younger siblings to stay in school, and changing jobs without bothering to ask her parents’ permission.

Chang’s book is full of such women: once-obedient daughters who make a few yuan, then hijack the social hierarchy. Even tiny incomes cash out in revolutionary ways. With little more than 1,000 yuan (about $150) in Min’s pocket, it becomes possible to plan a life independent of her family’s expectations, to conceive of a world where she decides where to live, how to spend her time, and with whom.

I call myself a classical liberal in part because I believe that negative liberties, such as Min’s freedom from government interference, are the best means to acquire positive liberties, such as Min’s ability to pursue further education. I also value the kind of culture that economic freedom produces and within which it thrives: tolerance for human variation, aversion to authoritarianism, and what the libertarian economist F.A. Hayek called “a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”

But I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends. It was tradition, not merely government, that threatened to limit Min’s range of possible lives. To describe the expanded scope of her agency as merely “freedom from state interference” is to deny the extent of what capitalism has achieved in communist China. 

As former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs can tell you, it’s possible to be an anti-government zealot with no interest whatsoever in individual liberty. If authoritarian fundamentalist compounds are your bag, the words personal agency will hold no magic for you, and Min’s situation will smack of social chaos. But libertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. 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. In Min’s village, women are constrained by a centuries-old preference for male descendants. (Men are also constrained by this tradition, as families are less likely to permit their valuable sons to migrate to the city.) Most people will accept their assigned roles in the village ecosystem, of course, just as most Americans will quietly accept the authority of a government that bans access to developmental cancer drugs while raiding medical marijuana dispensaries. A door is as good as a wall if we cannot imagine walking through it.

It ought to seem obvious that a philosophy devoted to political liberty would concern itself with building a freedom-friendly culture. But the state-wary social conservative flinches when his libertarian friends celebrate the power of culture itself to liberate: the liberty of the pill, of pornography, of 600 channels where once there were three. The social conservative will refer to these wayward anti-statists as “cultural libertarians,” by which he means libertines. And it will always be in his interest to argue that the libertarian, qua libertarian, should stay mute on issues of culture. 

“True libertarianism is not cultural libertarianism,” the philosopher Edward Feser wrote on the paleolibertarian website LewRockwell.com in December 2001. This statement was immediately preceded by a call for the stigmatization of porn, adultery, divorce, and premarital sex—in other words, an argument for a particular kind of culture. Feser claimed that small government and an ethos of “personal fulfillment” were incompatible, and he argued for the former over the latter. In the guise of an attack on cultural libertarianism, Feser demanded that libertarians espouse different patterns of cultural behavior.

As it turns out, all libertarians are cultural libertarians. We just don’t share the same agenda. Some prefer to advance their agenda by pretending it doesn’t exist: that social convention is not a matter of concern for those who believe in individual liberty. But when a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content—has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians—he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state. 

This prioritization can be difficult to confront because it is most often expressed in strategic silence or casual conversation. The tendency to dismiss feminist complaints about social pressure as “self-victimization,” for instance, is not something one is likely to encounter in a philosophical meditation on the centrality of property rights. It emerges in the choice to write about one freedom-limiting aspect of the world rather than another, bubbles up in Internet chatter, and spills over into informal interactions.

Still, if too many people who group themselves under the libertarian banner pursue a vision of liberty restricted to resisting state coercion, libertarian intellectual history has something to do with that outcome. Founders of modern libertarianism, giants who helped shape the self-conscious movement’s argumentative styles and emphases, tended to focus their firepower almost exclusively on the state. Murray Rothbard, the anarchist economist and philosopher who was a guiding influence on nearly every existing libertarian institution, limited his vision of liberty to the security of private property; any depredation that couldn’t be traced to an assault on or theft of someone’s justly owned property was not, in his view, the libertarian’s concern. Milton Friedman’s popular writings about choice looked at areas where choice was being restricted by agents of the state with explicit threats of force. Ayn Rand’s ethical philosophy did look beyond the state, to the forces of conformity and altruistic moral suasion. But her vision of rationality was so demanding that readers could be forgiven for thinking that life in a welfare state might be less restrictive than life lived as a model Randian.

Libertarianism in the early 1970s still had countercultural energy to burn, but the institutions that grew to define the modern movement during that decade and the next—reason, the Cato Institute, and the Libertarian Party— focused largely on areas of economic disagreement with the left, such as tax levels, government spending, the flexibility of labor markets, and the regulation of international trade. While libertarians agreed more with a roughly defined left in a few areas, such as military policy and the drug war, they repeatedly missed opportunities to connect their concerns about authoritarianism with the left’s analysis of less overt, more deeply embedded restrictions on individual agency.

Feminist consciousness, for example, came to be seen by libertarians as inseparable from statism, despite the fact that it arose in response to very real social and state pressures that restricted the autonomy of half the population. In a different context, libertarians might have seen that certain feminist critiques—particularly those having to do with the social construction of gender—were necessary to any serious consideration of individual liberty. Thoughtless conformity has rarely been the libertarian’s friend. But against a backdrop of feminist assaults on free speech and calls for workplace regulation, social constructionism seemed to many merely another justification for government coercion, a denial of the very concept of personal agency. 

In turning so definitively from the left, libertarians denied themselves a powerful vocabulary with which to engage discussions of individualism. To take a very basic example, at mid-century 5.5 percent of Americans entering medical school happened to have female bodies. This number may well have reflected women’s limited interest in pursuing medicine as a career. But that level of interest also reflected a particular view of women in positions of authority, a certain range of social spaces that girls could imagine themselves inhabiting. Norms that positioned women as wives and mothers obviously functioned as constraints on identity formation. None of this has much to do with limited government, but it has everything to do with individuals struggling to assert themselves against a collective.

Libertarians are usually sensitive to the political implications of social norms when those norms are fostered by an overzealous state. Universal state surveillance, libertarians often worry, breeds passive adults with no expectation of privacy. Smoking bans encourage people to accept the diminution of their choices uncomplainingly. Ever-expanding executive power encourages further president worship, preparing the ground for the next executive power grab. The more the state does, the broader most people think its natural scope to be. 

The inconsistency of the libertarian who believes that smoking bans create automatons but scoffs at the social construction of gender troubles the Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long and the libertarian writer Charles W. Johnson. “Libertarians often conclude that gender roles must not be oppressive since many women accept them,” they note in a 2005 essay on libertarian feminism, “but they do not analogously treat the fact that most citizens accept the legitimacy of governmental compulsion as a reason to question its oppressive character; on the contrary, they see their task as one of consciousness-raising and demystification, or, in the Marxian phrase, plucking the flowers from the chains to expose their character as chains.” Liberty—from government, from tradition, from prejudice—must be taught, capacities developed. 

Beyond the realm of social psychology lie more obvious markers of social pressure—brute, external restrictions on freedom maintained by intolerance or cultural inertia. Libertarians will agree that laws requiring racial segregation and prohibiting victimless, though controversial, sexual practices are contrary to their creed. But if the constraints on freedom of association suddenly become social rather than bureaucratic—if the neighborhood decides it does not want black residents, or the extended family decides it cannot tolerate gay sons—we do not experience a net expansion of freedom. If a black man who cannot hold employment by law is unfree, so too is a black man who cannot hold employment because social custom decrees that no one will hire him. If a gay couple that cannot legally marry is being wronged, so too is a couple that must stay closeted to avoid social ostracism. A woman who has to choose between purdah and exile from her village is not living a free life, even if no one has bothered to codify the rules in an Important Book and call them “laws.”

None of this is to say that it is the state’s place to force a family to accept its children, a church to welcome all comers, or a sex worker to embrace all lonely hearts. There is a difference between emotional coercion and physical force. But it is the role of someone who professes to believe in the virtues of individualism—and emphatically the role of someone who believes that social persuasion is preferable to legal coercion—to foster a culture that is tolerant of nonconformity.

Property rights are more than the conclusion of an academic argument; they are themselves a matter of culture. If they are useful to us it is because they govern our conduct and lend structure to everyday life. I may not help myself to the contents of just any wallet, take off in just any car, walk into just any house. A drop-dead argument for the authority of these constraints may exist in pure reason, but they are meaningless without a broadly shared sense of their legitimacy. Absent friendly social forces, property rights are an impotent abstraction. Rights come alive through convention. Culture makes them breathe. Strip away the context in which property rights are respected, and nothing much remains. Yet cultural context, in all its messy inexactitude, is exactly what propertarians wish to resist.

Culture also is where libertarians should focus if they wish to gain more than tepid enthusiasm for their unorthodoxy. A thin philosophy attracts thin support. It certainly didn’t take long for former President George W. Bush to abandon the logic of his professed small-government principles; the pull of moral utopianism was stronger than that of rational calculation. Rand inspires millions not because she writes so passionately about property rights but because she writes so passionately about individuality in a world of suffocating conformity. Her books change their readers not because they idealize small states but because they depict large men.

Leslie Chang, another author who surveys the damage wrought by cultural conformism, includes a conversation with her Chinese relatives in Factory Girls. Chang wants them to share the stories of their lives, their individual encounters with the Cultural Revolution and all the devastation that followed. But each relative of a certain age insists that she has nothing to say, brushes over life events, and retreats to the safety of specific dates rather than tracing the arc of a life. They cannot disentangle their stories from those of the nation, and Chang eventually gives up in frustration.

“The women in the factory towns of the south did not talk this way,” she finds. “In a city untroubled by the past, each one was living, telling, and writing her own story; amid these million solitary struggles, individualism was taking root. The details of their lives might be grim and mundane, yet these young women told me their stories as if they mattered.” 

Libertarians like to mock liberals who attribute all good things on this earth to the virtue of benign governmental forces—the bureaucratic Tinkerbell who ensures that their food isn’t poisoned, that their roofs don’t fall, that the sun rises on schedule. What an irony that so many avowed anti-statists, their eyes firmly affixed on Washington, cannot see freedom beyond government’s absence.

Contributing Editor Kerry Howley (KHowley@reason.com) is a writer in Iowa City.

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Kerry Howley’s Preferences

Defending property rights is difficult enough without cultural baggage.

Todd Seavey

Kerry Howley accuses property-focused libertarians—which I had hoped meant all libertarians—of having veiled cultural agendas, whereas hers is open, forthright, and beneficial to boot. Quite the contrary: Like countless young “Third Wave” feminists, Howley insists we see the specific, early-21st-century cultural agenda she’s pushing as a neutral blank slate, filled with endless possibilities and with no limitations on individuals and their boundless potential. By contrast, any conventions and cultural norms at odds with that vision are “walls,” like guard towers, seemingly backed by the threatening power of police truncheons.

The big question is why adherence to cultural norms is not itself an exercise of one’s freedom. Amish opponents of statism might think liberty grows more organically out of their highly traditional way of life than it does out of Howley’s just-do-it attitude. Meanwhile, fighting against social norms often includes opposition to such libertarian-approved bourgeois social norms as commerce and respect for property. Storefront-smashing anti-globalization activists are a good example of the dangerous paths that groovy cultural iconoclasm can take.

This is not to say that I know our current batch of social norms is ideal. (I’m an atheist, so there are obviously going to be some social conventions with which I disagree.) I’m just not convinced that Howley has the power to spot which ones are bad and thus weed them out of the ongoing, dynamic, evolutionary process that is civilization.

She mentions, for instance, that 5.5 percent of medical students, decades ago, “happened to have female bodies.” She concedes briefly that discrepancies in gender roles “may” result from psychological inclinations or voluntary behavior patterns rather than oppression, but she gives us no reason to believe that she has special skills enabling her to decide better than the rest of us when the sorting processes of society have yielded acceptably “free” results and when they have yielded unacceptably gendered ones. That’s why libertarians traditionally focus so much on the physical-coercion litmus test: Other tests are as hopelessly ambiguous as the bickering of democratic socialists. 

There’s a vast universe of moral and philosophical judgments beyond libertarianism, and one of the beauties of the philosophy is that it leaves people free to debate those countless other matters without breaking the minimal ground rule of respecting one another’s rights. Trying to cram all of philosophy and culture into the tiny footnote that is libertarianism is precisely the kind of political overreaching that drives people away from radical philosophies, not a form of richness that aids recruitment.

It’s hard enough to sell people on the idea of property rights already without adding a host of “rich” moral baggage to the idea. Does Howley predict greater success if we tell people they have to give up traditional social norms, gender roles, and religious views at the same time? Do you think the metric system would have been an easier sell in Europe if bureaucrats had said everyone also had to adopt, say, Portuguese cuisine and androgynous clothing?

Most libertarians would say that once the side constraint of property rights adherence is established, people have a right to engage in whatever social patterns they wish to follow so long as the property side constraints are not themselves undermined. Howley mentions “fundamentalist compounds” dismissively, but isn’t the whole point of liberty that people are free to construct fundamentalist compounds, sexist strip clubs, respectable female-run corporations, gender-indifferent science labs, or all-male hunting lodges as they choose, so long as they do so voluntarily?

If not, we can be forgiven for wondering why someone who thinks like Howley would embrace the basic political stance of libertarianism in the strict property-defending sense at all. If people telling you “fat chicks should be shunned” is as oppressive as being hauled off to jail, why not pass laws banning anti-fat-chick discrimination? Why not endorse affirmative action laws? Why not tell Catholic-run charities they must hire gays? The traditional libertarian answer is that rights violations are fundamentally different from behavior that merely strikes you as narrow-minded.

Howley’s thinking is potentially authoritarian (in a way that being passively bourgeois is not) because other people’s patterns of behavior will always limit your options one way or another and thus prompt demands for redress. Howley singles out a few hot-button, familiar issues such as race and gender, but the truth is that every time your fellow human beings decide, say, to be sports fans instead of talking about entomology with you, or to leave town en masse for the Bahamas (causing you to feel lonely), their actions have altered your life options. Tough luck. That’s called “other people exercising their freedom,” not “people oppressing you.”

And their freedom includes their right to heap criticism upon you, not just your right to speak freely. They may even express arbitrary preferences in their criticism, unless Howley is asserting that only others’ objective, rationally defensible statements should be allowed to affect my life. It is not an enhancement of libertarianism but instead a grotesque subversion of it to say that other people are behaving freely only if they’re being nice and supportive of your decisions and behaviors. This is not to say that their voluntary actions and words cannot be, as Howley rightly suggests, more damaging to you than a property violation such as a fine or a burglary. But we recognize in their nonviolent actions an inevitable aspect of freedom in the real world, lived with other free people. The property violations, by contrast, can be policed and minimized.

Just as theater critics who hound a writer into abandoning his work have not committed coercion in the morally or legally relevant sense of the term, generations of people expressing their cultural preferences in ways that put you at odds with them are not committing coercion. They are living free lives that you are welcome to ridicule, despise, or oppose, but you should not claim to be doing so in the name of libertarianism or liberty. You’re simply expressing your preferences, and they’re expressing theirs.

The larger problem with Howley’s view is that she has no more idea than the rest of us what social norms will come to be seen as most beneficial centuries hence, absent legal coercion. She may feel deep in her bones that the future is destined to be a funky, libidinous, free-spirited, gender-neutral dance party. But ongoing scientific revelations about gender differences in the brain and the perpetual quest for more efficient ways of carving up the division of labor may in fact yield a world more “sexist” than anything routinely seen in America in the early 21st century. Similarly, people may come to think that a quiet life of media avoidance, monastic contemplation, and predictable routines creates vastly more happiness than being a Howley-style individualist. We simply don’t know how dense tradition—or other even more rigid social norms—will be (and should be) in a free future after more centuries of learning.

In the short term, I can’t help noticing that at the recent Tea Party protests against government spending that I’ve attended, there were a lot of conservatives and Christians. Should we tell those right-wingers they’re hindering the fight for freedom? Is the real battle being waged by fans of Herbert Marcuse? The Marcuse fans I’ve met tend to love government spending—and hate capitalism, not to mention bourgeois individualism—as do most of the leftist culture theorists from whom Howley thinks we have so much to learn. Thinkers who (however accurately) point out that morality is more than just the market have a tendency to favor regimes that leave us with less than a market. 

Libertarians should stay focused on shrinking the government’s role in our lives and our economy. The other culture wars are endless, and we have no clear stake as libertarians in their outcome. By adding still more items to the libertarian agenda, we will not enrich our philosophy, only render it muddled, more demanding, more partisan, and still less popular.

Howley is entitled to prefer whatever cultural norms she likes. We are in turn free to criticize, ridicule, and shun her.

Todd Seavey (toddseavey@earthlink.net) blogs at ToddSeavey.com.

No One True Culture of Liberty

Tolerance is important but difficult to define and easily subverted.

Daniel McCarthy

Libertarians ought to support a culture of liberty. But what does that mean?

Many scholars of liberty—the sociologist Rodney Stark, to name one—have argued that Western Christianity is the original culture of liberty. It ended classical slavery, improved the status of women, recognized the sanctity of the individual soul, and set the stage for a proliferation of private property rights and the spirit of enterprise throughout Europe as nowhere else. From all that, it may not follow that Christian culture is still the womb of liberty today. But conservatives and culturally right-wing libertarians believe it is.

Progressives and culturally left-leaning libertarians tell another story, in which Christianity is a seedbed of intolerance and repression—often violent repression. Libertarians of all stripes are comfortable enough condemning aggressive violence categorically. (Though even here questions arise: Who defines aggression? Is violence against a fetus in the womb aggression, or is it a defense of your right to your own body?) What kind of culture leads to minimal aggression and maximum freedom is a matter of contention. Tolerance is probably an important attribute of any culture of liberty, but tolerance is harder to define than liberty itself.

Consider: If McCorp fires John Doe because he voices support for gay marriage, a libertarian who subscribes to a progressive view of the world might say McCorp has committed an act of intolerance against Doe. But if Cold Harbor Laboratory fires a molecular biologist (let’s call him “James Watson”) because he states a belief that Africans have weak cognitive abilities, the same progressive libertarian may not believe any act of intolerance has occurred—or, if one has, that Watson is the guilty party. After all, can you foster a culture of liberty in a society polluted by views like Watson’s? If that example seems too easy, consider the case of an otherwise qualified professor denied tenure because he’s a creationist, or because he’s a Republican.

Must a free society treat those who hold irrational or bigoted opinions the same way it treats those who have enlightened views? To do so, Herbert Marcuse warned, amounts to “repressive tolerance,” a kind of tolerance that allows fascist personality types to flourish and thereby undermines freedom. Right-wingers have their own list of views that must be suppressed (by force or by social stigma) in the name of freedom. Willmoore Kendall, for example, believed that public orthodoxy ought to trump free speech, since all liberties rest upon a cultural consensus. Thus, according to Kendall, Athens was right to execute Socrates, and 1950s America ought not to tolerate Communists. For disciples of Marcuse and Kendall, freedom really isn’t free.

Maybe a true culture of liberty has nothing to do with left-wing or right-wing orthodoxies. Rather than taking sides in culture wars over race, religion, sex, and subversion, libertarians —so this line of thinking goes—ought just to affirm a culture that supports property rights. In this case, the libertarian position regarding John Doe or James Watson should be to support employers whenever they fire anyone, since (unless a contract specifies otherwise) an em-ployer always has a right to dismiss subordinates. But even this culturally neutral standpoint does not have an uncontested claim to be the pure libertarian view. Those who take their cues from John Stuart Mill will argue that expressive liberty is at least as important as property rights. We therefore ought to defend employees with unpopular views against arbitrary dismissal, regardless of whether we find their opinions righteous or repugnant.

If Mill is patron saint of the expressive libertarians, Murray Rothbard is the champion of the propertarians. Kerry Howley’s essay makes the case for a substantive left-libertarianism. She suggests the Ed Feser of 2001 as spokesman for the culturally right-wing libertarians. Today Feser, who has continued to move rightward, or at least stateward, is not a libertarian at all, which might seem to prove Howley’s point. But I held views not far from Feser’s in 2001, and I have followed a different trajectory. That Feser and I can move in different directions from similar cultural presuppositions might prove the point I want to make: that there is no one true culture of liberty.

The idea that only traditional attitudes, never progressive ones, can be oppressive strikes me as naive. Cultural progressives are as apt as anyone to make the leap from stigmatizing to persecuting their enemies. Scapegoating has been as useful for the authoritarian left as for the authoritarian right: Witness the hysteria about white separatists and right-wing militias that recurs every time a tolerant Democratic administration succeeds an intolerant Republican one. Randy Weaver, no less than Matthew Shepard, can attest to the consequences of demonizing misfits.

Nor do progressive attitudes toward sex and race necessarily lead to a culture of liberty. In the 1920s the Soviet Union was less racist and more sexually open than the United States. Divorce and abortion were legal and readily available, and more than a few Bolsheviks practiced as well as preached free love. Yet that did not make Russia a more fertile soil for liberty. Workers’ orgies were no defense against the power of the Soviet state, which soon revoked the moral license it had granted.

To point out the inadequacies of cultural progressivism is not to excuse the flaws of cultural conservatives. Either side may be more or less libertarian in practice. Paradoxically, the nonlibertarian qualities of the mutually antagonistic left and right sometimes entail unexpected benefits for freedom. Some of the most effective centers of resistance to state power over the centuries, after all, have been nonindividualistic institutions such as labor unions, churches, guilds, and extended families. Conversely, when libertarians attack these organs of civil society in the name of freedom, they may only succeed in empowering the state—not always, but sometimes.

If some libertarians won’t tell you what freedom should look like beyond the absence of the state, don’t assume that these people must subscribe to a crabbed idea of liberty or else are smuggling their values behind a veil of cultural neutrality. These anti-statists may refuse to define the cultural content of libertopia because they believe deeply in the pluripotentiality of freedom—that freedom can mean the freedom to be a Mormon housewife as well as to be a postgendered television personality. Freedom, they realize, may even mean the freedom not to be free. Libertarianism does not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of the good life. By extension, libertarianism also should not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of liberty.

Thoroughgoing anti-statists understand that politics is not culture, even if culture—that is, how people live their lives—shapes politics. What follows from this is that in letting culture remain diverse, anti-statists accept that politics will be diverse too and will not always lead to outcomes that all libertarians like. The political theorist Chandran Kukathas explains this well in his paper “Two Constructions of Libertarianism.” In what he calls the “Union of Liberty,” everybody has to interpret the rules in the same way, under one centralized libertarian government. In the “Federation of Liberty,” there is a “meta-tolerance” toward different understandings of tolerance and liberty because it is understood that other people interpret political rules, including the fundamental libertarian rule of nonaggression, in different ways.

The danger of the Federation of Liberty is that it permits violations of liberty, perhaps even outright slavery. The danger of the Union of Liberty, however, is much worse. The trouble is not only a universal state but a universal orthodoxy, a tyranny of the supermajority that threatens to destroy the individual personality. In culture, even tolerance, justice, and liberty can be carried too far. One must be permitted some room for error, psychological space for entertaining thoughts other than “libertarian” thoughts.

Consider the plight of Alex in the Anthony Burgess novel and Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange. By any standard—left, right, Millian, or Rothbardian—Alex is no libertarian. He’s a vandal, a murderer, a rapist (ipso facto a misogynist). He’s guilty of every crime. So why do so many of us sympathize with him? Our feeling for Alex derives from something deeper than mere horror at his eyes being pried open in the film’s famous torture scene. We have a right to, or better still a love for, what is inside our own skulls. If mental content, even good values like nonaggression, can be poured into Alex’s conscience as if he were nothing more than a vessel, the same could happen to any of us. Not only the state but also our culture must not press its demands so far into the individual conscience, whether by “justified” coercion (in the case of the killer Alex) or by any other means.

Our moral imperfections are our last guarantee of liberty against the benevolent system builders who would have all men and women speak with one voice and assent to one idea. Cultures of liberty tend to be bric-a-brac, full of unresolved tensions between competing ideas. Freedom does not depend upon universalizing the “right”—or left—values. It’s the other way around: A clash of values is what makes even mental liberty possible.

Daniel McCarthy (mccarthydp@gmail.com) is senior editor of The American Conservative.

Culture, Not Just Government, Restricts Liberty

The capacity to choose must be learned.

Kerry Howley

Earlier I suggested that not all threats to liberty are threats from the state, that power is distributed throughout society by nature, accident, and convention. Daniel Mc-Carthy echoes my thoughts in his description of “a universal orthodoxy, a tyranny of the supermajority.” My point is that such orthodoxy is of concern, if not to all self-described libertarians, then to those who are in the game because they care about freedom broadly construed.

My co-discussants conceive of a world in which human beings spring from their mothers’ wombs fully equipped with the psychological armor required for individualism, at which point they choose among an array of possible lives. “Shall I be Amish or Wiccan?” the ready-made individual asks. “Shall I be a child bride or shall I enroll at Miss Porter’s?”

Missing from Todd Seavey’s and Daniel McCarthy’s responses is an acknowledgement that human beings acquire a respect for individual rights and a consciousness of their individuality. We aren’t born knowing that prosperity flows from property rights; indeed, it’s somewhat counterintuitive. And we aren’t born knowing that it’s dangerous to defer unthinkingly to your peers.

Our choices are rather more constrained than Seavey and McCarthy allow, and cultural pressure is one notable limitation. Resistance to this pressure is a developed skill, if it is developed at all. Clearly some are never given the tools to do anything but acquiesce. A pluralistic society requires a delicate balance between the freedom to raise children in whatever manner you please and some assurance that growing human beings will encounter conditions under which individuals may act as individuals and come to exercise freedom in a meaningful way. 

In the abstract it is easy to pretend, as Seavey does, that no one loses out when authoritarian cultures thrive unmolested. Specifics are messier, darkened by the reality of trade-offs and fraught with the vulnerability of young minds. An Afghan kid who never gets the chance to go to school—not because the state prohibits it, but because her culture does—will find her range of options profoundly constrained. She may not even conceive of other ways of living: As McCarthy reminds us, “psychic liberty,” too, is subject to constraint. “Tough Luck,” says Seavey. “That’s called ‘other people exercising their freedom,’ not “people oppressing you.’ ” But if we care about choice, perhaps we should care about encouraging the capacity to choose.

Seavey’s libertarian can have no complaint, qua libertarian, so long as property rights, conceived along the lines of a certain kind of idiosyncratic libertarian theory, are observed. One may be a racist, an anti-Semite, a raving nationalist interventionist, or all three, but libertarian one may remain. Fair enough. Someone inclined to endorse libertarian property rights, but who thinks there is more to liberty than the allocation of property rights, should thus be no more objectionable than, say, a property-rights-respecting xenophobic militarist. Yet the idea that social structure and cultural norms also matter to liberty is taken to be, for reasons unknown, “potentially authoritarian.” Xenophobic nationalism is a matter of indifference to the property-focused libertarian. But an expansive concern for liberty? Well, that’s the first step down the road to serfdom. Or the second, after feminism.

Seavey worries that libertarianism will be even less popular if we point out the confluence between it and other philosophical leanings. This is silly. I write this response from a café in southern Guatemala, where you can’t walk into a Catholic church without being confronted by Mayan animist iconography. Unimpeachably devout Catholics cart booze and cigarettes to an effigy of Maximón, a badass, cigar-smoking saint I promise you will not find in the Vatican.

The most successful missionaries did not come to Guatemala and insist that their religion had nothing whatsoever to do with the lives of those they sought to convert. They tried to convince the locals that they had been Catholics in spirit all along. Every evangelist on earth knows his task is to find connections between old, entrenched beliefs and whatever newfangled doctrine he is looking to sell.

Perhaps it would be instructive to consider a hypothetical conversation between Seavey and a potential libertarian.

Potential Libertarian: What’s libertarianism?

Seavey: A philosophy of freedom and property rights.

Potential Libertarian: Oh, right. Freedom like civil rights? 

Seavey: No, not that kind of freedom. 

Potential Libertarian: Oh. Freedom like the freedom to be openly gay?

Seavey: No. That has nothing to do with liberty. 

Potential Libertarian: Oh. Um…

Seavey: Let’s talk about easements!

Daniel McCarthy’s erudite critique outlines some ambiguities over which libertarians have always argued—the many, differing conceptions of tolerance, aggression, and property rights. He is right to claim that “libertarians should not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of liberty,” but it is a mistake to assume that given the inevitability of disagreements, any consensus is impossible and undesirable. Tolerance itself is a consensus position, demanding a certain measure of agreement. Like all rights, property rights depend on some measure of concordance. Sometimes an appeal to the impossibility of agreement is merely an excuse for quiescence.

People come together to undertake all manner of projects in a free society, and resisting pervasive cultural constraints is one of them. The status quo reflects a natural, but not inevitable, proclivity to defer to authority, and a natural, but not inevitable, desire to bow to the tribe. A culture of liberty would indeed beget the raucous, plenitudinous hodgepodge McCarthy speaks of. And I would call that world a better one.