"What do you think of interracial marriage? It would be hard, offhand, to think of a question less relevant to libertarianism"


Got the government out of prohibiting certain kinds of marriage

Over at LewRockwell.com, David Gordon criticizes the "pseudo-libertarian concoction" contained within The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America. In the process Gordon spreads a few misconceptions, and also initiates an interesting discussion about essential definitions of libertarianism. First the misconceived bits:

[Gillespie and Welch] extend the net of libertarian social values very wide; musical tastes, one gathers, are included. They mock William Buckley and Frank Sinatra, among others, who disparaged rock music. "Such dismissive critiques of rock music and other American ephemera like comic books, movies, and video games…proceed apace." (p.86). Of course, people who like rock music should be free to play it, and Gillespie and Welch offer an interesting account of how governmental suppression of it helped spark revolution in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. But why must libertarians like it? Can you not be a libertarian in good standing yet regard this music as raucous noise?

Gross, but legal

One gathers incorrectly. Consider the material that was excised from our quoted sentence above. Here's the sentence in full, with the omission bolded.

"Such dismissive critiques of rock music and other American ephemera like comic books, movies, and video games ("Step away from the video games," counsels Barack Obama, who admits to not having played one since the days of Pong) proceed apace."

The linkage here (as in that chapter's discussion of Al and Tipper Gore) should be clear. Spasms against popular culture go hand in hand with government censoriousness, and always have. It was only two months ago that the Supreme Court ruled that California's attempt to crack down on violent video games violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. Does that mean I think every libertarian should like video games? If so, then I'm setting a miserable example, having not played one since the mid-1990s.

His finest performance

Re: musical preferences, Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe (like many Mitteleuropeans) revered Frank Zappa, who I consider unlistenable (aside from maybe "Titties and Beer"). If musical taste were some kind of libertarian litmus test–and more importantly, if I or Reason had any interest or track record in policing who does and does not get to be "a libertarian in good standing"–then I would likely be disqualified by my heartfelt dislike of Neil Peart's drumming.

Our book's main point in discussing rock music was not to bully people into favoriting our record collections (Gillespie's, by his own admission, is terrible), but to celebrate the art form's potency as a force for personal and even national liberation, a fact that contradicts many of the official and unofficial condemnations of the stuff as setting back the cause of human liberty.

This is an excuse to look at Bill James' '70s glasses

There's a similar misconception at work here:

Even worse, what if you prefer to work for a large corporation? Then, it would seem, you have shown yourself to be an "organization man" and displayed a spirit antithetical to that of libertarianism. "The creative destruction of the Internet, along with the trailblazing pre-Internet example of disorganization men such as [baseball statistician] Bill James across thousands of disciplines, has destroyed corporate monoculture and subservient workplace identity as we know it." (p.114).

The key word in the quoted sentence is not "corporate," it's "monoculture." I work for a (small, nonprofit) corporation today; worked for a humongoid media corporation from 2006-07; and largely as a freelancer from 1998-2004. I enjoyed wearing a tie in all three work settings, though admittedly less frequently at the latter. The point here is not about emulating or validating my choices, it's about having greater choices, period. Monocultures are reflexively hostile to deviant minorities, have a tendency to influence laws in ways antithetical to liberty, and make life less interesting and prosperous.

One of the last semi-minimalist covers

Another faulty interpretation here:

Gillespie and Welch miss the crucial distinction between freedom from coercion and their own preferences for particular outcomes of choice that manifest wide variety. In their discussion of education, this mistake leads them to some dubious proposals. They say, "without making any sort of fundamental change in funding levels, structure, or school taxes, we can accomplish significant educational improvement virtually overnight through widespread implementation of what is known as the 'weighted-student formula'". (pp.192-93). In this formula "the money follows the students"; students may enroll in any public school that will accept them, and actual enrollment determines how much money a school receives. To the authors, "With a minimum of fuss from the outside, weighted-student formula funding creates a market in education." (p.103) The authors fail to grasp that a choice among government institutions and a free market are very different things.

They are certainly not opposed to free market education, but they do not call for the government to exit entirely from the field. To the contrary, they enthusiastically favor vouchers. To them, as always, choice and variety, not libertarian rights, stand uppermost.

What a difference three years makes

This characterization of our views on education policy is contradicted by the paragraph immediately preceding the above quotation, which reads like this:

Can this system be saved? The short answer is no. The longer answer is only slightly more complicated: No, and the only thing that should matter is the timing of the exit plan. Whose child will be the last to live a frustrated life for this dreadful mistake?

We presented the weighted-student formula not as the ideal "free market" solution, but as a way of sketching out how the libertarian and capitalist insights on consumer-driven choice could improve education as it exists today and likely tomorrow. Backpack funding is a way to take existing government expenditure and make it work much better. I understand, respect, and sometimes even take the position that pragmatic-oriented discussions that cede to reality can amount to a big fat sellout, but at the same time I'm very glad that the New Orleans school district after Hurricane Katrina was hearing more public policy arguments than "Just get the government out of eduction!"

You can't unsee!

If the preceding has suggested some basic philosophical and cultural differences, this passage flushes them right up to the surface, and tacks on a question worth answering:

What do you think of interracial marriage? It would be hard, offhand, to think of a question less relevant to libertarianism, as usually understood. Of course, no one has the right forcibly to prevent such marriages. What more need a libertarian say about this issue?

Gillespie and Welch disagree. They praise Tiger Woods for calling himself a "'Cablinasian', a neologism that combined his various racial and ethnic components. Weren't we – finally – at a point in history where everyone was ready to move on from simple, either-or categories?…As a Cablinasian he [Woods] represents something that's in all of us." (pp.130, 140) Why is mixing categories a libertarian issue?

Here's why: Intermarriage and mixing–of people, of categories, of ideas–leads directly to more pluralism, more trade, more possibilities, and fewer opportunities for the majority to inflict its preferences onto less desirable minorities by force and exclusion. Here's how we make that case in the book:

With variety—of ethnicities, of genders, of races, of clothing, of food, and more—comes mixing. The percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States is about 12.5 percent, according to the Census Bureau, up from just 4.7 percent in 1970. Not coincidentally, Pew Research reports that one in seven marriages is now interracial or interethnic, an all-time high. While such couplings remain a small fraction, the trend captures an undeniable reality that has been gaining ground for the past few decades.


"In 1961," write Pew's Jeffrey S. Passel, Wendy Wang, and Paul Taylor, "the year Barack Obama's parents were married, less than one in 1,000 new marriages in the United States was, like theirs, the pairing of a black person and a white person, according to Pew Research estimates. By 1980, that share had risen to about one in 150 new marriages. By 2008, it had risen to one-in-sixty." New social realities have given rise to new levels of tolerance and pluralism as well. In 1987, two decades after the Supreme Court had invalidated the last laws against interracial marriage, only 48 percent of Americans thought it was "OK for whites and blacks to date each other." By 2009, fully 83 percent did. Similar trends can be observed in other areas of personal identity. The Gallup Poll began asking whether "gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal" in 1977. Just 43 percent then thought they should be legal. Today, that figure stands at 58 percent.

Born in 1963, Nick Gillespie was delivered into an America where intolerant majorities saw to it that more than a dozen states outlawed interracial marriage. We still live in a country where most states do not recognize marriage between consenting adults of the same gender, because enough heterosexuals want their preferences enshrined in exclusionary law. So yes, I am heartened by any non-harmful trend that increases Americans' belief that the consensual behavior of minorities should not be prohibited by the government.

Different definitions

Is that outside the scope of acceptable libertarian thinking? David Gordon thinks so:

They characterize libertarianism in this way: "While there are competing definitions of what 'libertarian' means, the simplest understanding attaches to people who believe that government is less efficient than the private sector, that people should be left alone as much as possible to lead their own lives, and that tolerance is the most important social value."(p.34) This very much differs from the conception of libertarianism defended over a lifetime by Murray Rothbard. As Rothbard saw matters, libertarians are committed only to defining the permissible use of force. They are free to adopt whatever attitudes they wish towards people's lifestyles, so long as they respect rights. They are emphatically not required to be "social liberals". Though Rothbard indisputably ranks as a towering figure of the modern libertarian movement, his name nowhere appears in the book.

The authors might respond, "So what if we differ from Rothbard; we prefer our own view." If they were to say this, they stand open to two objections. First, people such as Ron Paul and many of his followers who are social conservatives have been excluded from the libertarian mainstream by definitional fiat. Further, Gillespie and Welch's account raises the question, why are the social attitudes they favor correct?

That's just how devious the conspiracy has been

This is the meat of a very real and legitimate difference of opinion, one which we'll get to in a moment. And it should also be pointed out that no person, let alone an economist/philosopher 16 years dead, has earned the right to be the final arbiter of libertarianism. But first, how is there a "libertarian mainstream" that does not include the single most potent libertarian politician of the past several decades? And who, exactly, has "excluded" Ron Paul? Certainly it is not the magazine that named him one of its "35 Heroes of Freedom," enthused about the rEVOLution to Washington Post readers in November 2007, put Paul on the February 2008 cover, had him write a few months later on "The Coming Recession," positively reviewed his latest book, complained about his media marginalization a dozen times over the last four months, and interviewed him on God knows how many occasions.

But there is an identifiable difference of philosophy and emphasis embedded in Gordon's Rothbard-vs.-Reason formulation (even if it should also be pointed out here that Rothbard was a Reason columnist in the 1970s and '80s). It's similar to the tension at play in our great November 2009 exchange "Are Property Rights Enough? Should libertarians care about cultural values?", between Kerry Howley, Todd Seavey, and Daniel McCarthy. I basically take the Howley view that "Freedom is about more than just the absence of government." Here's a slightly longer snapshot of her argument, using a 17-year-old Chinese working girl as a jumping-off point:

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."

Again, I understand and respect libertarian arguments that instead hew to first principles. That's not where I'm coming from, but as I wrote in a recent column, I'm glad that there is more than one approach to libertarianism.

You know what? I was 12.

Gordon, having complained–inaccurately–that our conception of libertarianism excludes people with different musical preferences, people who work for big corporations, people who are not social liberals, and even people named Ron Paul, finishes his review by excluding us (and others) from his conception of libertarianism:

In 1980, Murray Rothbard memorably criticized the Libertarian party campaign of Ed Clark for offering "low-tax liberalism" in place of libertarian principle. As a result he earned the enmity of the Kochtopus, an enmity that his death by no means has brought to an end. It is not hard to imagine what his opinion would have been of the pseudo-libertarian concoction we have here on offer.

Reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty–who is currently working on a book about Ron Paul–wrote about some of the underlying tensions at work here in a March 2010 piece entitled "A Tale of Two Libertarianisms." That essay concerned some previously unpublished writing by Rothbard, including his recommendation to the libertarianism-financing Volker Fund that they attack rather than fund F.A. Hayek's monumental work The Constitution of Liberty, on grounds that it was a "surprisingly and distressingly, an extremely bad, and, I would even say, evil book." I appreciate that many of Rothbard's biggest modern-day enthusiasts have emulated his intra-libertarian rhetorical bomb-throwing, and that (as discussed above) these conflicts frequently arise out of real differences in philosophy and basic orientation. But I'll never quite grok how the same people can in the next breath complain, often inaccurately, about being marginalized by fellow libertarians.

UPDATE: David Gordon responds.