In Search of the Elusive Cultural Libertarian

You might be a cultural libertarian if... well, that depends on whom you ask.


What is a "cultural libertarian?" While young conservatives claim the term originated in a 2015 Breitbart article, it's actually a term that's been thrown around by libertarians and conservatives in the media since at least 2001. But does the "cultural libertarianism" debated in outlets such as Reason and the National Review back then share anything with the version espoused by the likes of Canadian activist Lauren Southern and Breitbart personality Milo Yiannopoulos these days? Yes and no. 

Today's "cultural libertarians" claim to be concerned, first and foremost, with free speech and fending off the "illiberal" or "regressive left." Where they succeed, from a libertarian-no-qualifier perspective, is in igniting the passions of young people toward the protection of civil liberties. Where they fail is by turning off more people in the process than they win over, delighting in the kinds of tactics and stunts that provoke but little else. Going to a feminist rally and holding up signs saying "there is no rape culture" may seem edgy when you're 20, but most people realize that intruding on private events just to throw shade simply makes you an asshole, not a radical for free expression. 

Kevin Glass, policy director for the Franklin Center, calls the cultural libertarianism of today "warmed over 90s-style anti-politcal correctness in a new suit." Former Reason staffer Julian Sanchez, now at the Cato Institute, opined yesterday that "cultural libertarian is either redundant or just a dodgy way of saying 'I don't wanna talk about racism or sexism.'" If so-called cultural libertarians are just people who don't want censorship in the name of social justice, we already "have a perfectly good word for" that, noted Sanchez: civil libertarians. 

Similar sentiment comes from writer Garry Reed, who explored cultural libertarianisn this week at Because classical liberalism is a philosophy that covers economic, political, and social realms, being a libertarian means "you're a philosophical libertarian, political libertarian, cultural libertarian, social libertarian, economic libertarian and libertarian in every other way possible," he writes.

Southern positions cultural libertarianism as a sub-branch of broader libertarian philosophy. "Libertarians who are not Cultural Libertarians would argue that the only suppression of speech and expression that is unacceptable is suppression that is perpetrated by the state," says Southern, making it sound like just another way of saying "thick libertarian." Thick libertarianism is a term used by liberty-movement types to describe libertarians who "concern themselves with social commitments, practices, projects or movements that seek social outcomes beyond, or other than, the standard libertarian commitment to expanding the scope of freedom from government coercion." But for the nouveau cultural libertarians, freedom from government coercion seems, if anything, an afterthought in the battle to "trigger" Twitter leftists and, at worst, an inconvenient obstacle in the election of President Donald Trump. 

Breitbart's Allum Bokhari defines cultural libertarians in opposition to cultural authoritarians: "those who want to control culture versus those who want to liberate it." In this sense, we're not talking "the economic libertarianism of Hayek or Rothbard, nor the political theorising of Nozick," writes Bokhari.

"Cultural authoritarians from both the left and right occupy most positions of power in government, academia and the media," he asserted in a subsequent article, "Rise of the Cultural Libertarians," and this is bad news for free expression. In contrast, cultural libertarians believe in open expression, viewing art as separate from its political overtones, and recognizing "that efforts to police language and expression are not only counter-productive, but also fragile." 

Tellingly, Bokhari mentions the main goal of cultural libertarian to be "needling their foes" on the Internet "with waspish critiques and satire." Their core tenets, he writes, are "resisting identity politics," "public shaming," "combat(ing) anger with ridicule," ending "safe space culture," and "defending spaces for uncomfortable opinions." When it comes down to it, the cultural libertarians of the Breitbart set just want to mock "social justice warriors" while invoking natural rights. 

Yet at the very bottom of Bokhari's list, there is this: "celebrating culture in all its forms." Whether his cohort of cultural libertarians actually do so in practice is debatable, but this idea is the closet that Cultural Libertarianism 2.0 comes to its 2001 counterpart. Let's look at that old debate for a moment. In a December 2001 National Review post, Jonah Goldberg decried the "Chinese-menu culture" that "basically says that whatever ideology, religion, cult, belief, creed, fad, hobby, or personal fantasy you like is just fine so long as you don't impose it on anybody else, especially with the government." In other words, cultural libertarians believe in the sort of pro-choice multi-culturalism that today might labeled evidence of "cultural Marxism." 

"You want to be a Klingon? Great!" wrote Goldberg. "Attend the Church of Satan? Hey man, if that does it for ya, go for it. You want to be a "Buddhist for Jesus"? Sure, mix and match, man; we don't care. Hell, you can even be an observant Jew, a devout Catholic or a faithful Baptist, or a lifelong heroin addict—they're all the same, in the eyes of a cultural libertarian."

This attitude, embodied by the "arrogant nihilism" of Nick Gillespie and former Reason editor Virginia Postrel, was "rapidly replacing liberalism as the real threat to America, and the true opposition to conservatism," warned Goldberg.

According to cultural libertarianism … we can pick from across the vast menu of human diversity — from all religions and cultures, real and imagined — until we find one that fits our own personal preferences. Virginia Postrel can write triumphantly that the market allows Americans to spend $8 billion on porn and $3 billion at Christian bookstores, because she isn't willing to say that one is any better, or any worse, than the other.

If this is cultural libertarianism, sign me up!  

And that's exactly the attitude Reason took back in the early aughts. Gillespie noted that contra Goldberg's claim about libertarian nihilism, we actually cling in Hayek's idea that "to live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends."

This belief, "in tolerance—and in allowing people to pursue and discover their own definition of happiness to the greatest extent possible while maintaining peace—is not believing in 'absolutely nothing,'" Gillespie wrote.

In a subsequent post on the matter, he noted that the cultural-libertarianism debate with Goldberg reflected broader differences between libertarians and conservatives. "These differences are worth underscoring, if only because they are not going away anytime soon," blogged Gillespie. "These two positions—roughly representing forces of choice vs. forces of control—are where the action is, and will be, for a long time to come." 

In the nearly 15 years since then, things got a bit strange, though. U.S. conservatives grew increasingly authoritarian in the post-9/11 era and then gradually started backing off as the Tea Party, Ron Paul, and others introduced a little more liberty to GOP ranks. At the same time, liberals let cultural power go to their heads and, absent the occasional issue convergence (ending marijuana prohibition or the ban on same-sex marriage), started parting from "cultural libertarianism" in many meaningful ways.

What we're left with is a cultural libertarianism with the same rough contours of its predecessor but with 1) new lines drawn in terms of allies and enemies, and 2) the corrupting influence of over a decade of social media outrage culture. And as Peter Suderman and others have argued, we're seeing the rise of post-ideas politics, where neither the Democrats nor the Republicans actually stand for anything except winning the news cycle, and then the one after that, and then…  In this environment, the cultural libertarianism of Bokhari, Southern, et al is a perfect product of its time. It exists in service not of Hayekian principles but for pageviews and lulz. 

There's nothing wrong with this, per se, and politics as performance art isn't a new concept. But by invoking libertarianism in service of trolling, today's cultural libertarians reinforce the worst tropes about the libertarian philosophy. Once, it was that we were all just conservatives who want to smoke pot; now it's we're conservatives who want to say obnoxious things without complaint. Muh free speech rights!

Again and again, these cultural libertarians seem aghast at the idea that there could be any social consequences at all based on things they say. "Freedom of choice on cultural issues"—how a 2001 paper from the Sociology of Religion journal describes cultural libertarianism—only extends to those with whom they agree on cultural issues. Which isn't really very libertarian—culturally, politically, or in any other sense—at all. 

Even Christopher Cantwell, who is best described as every Salon stereotype about libertarians if those stereotypes called women cunts 10 times more often, sees through the 'free speech' schtick of the alt-right-lite set. Cantwell digs "the idea being that violence—State sponsored or otherwise—is not the only threat to free speech" and that "cultural Marxists, social justice warriors, and even stuffy right wing religious fanatics [also] pose a threat to free expression." Calling "a movement aimed at fighting these people" cultural libertarians "does appeal to me," he writes. But as it stands, cultural libertarian' "rhetoric almost mirrors that of our politically correct rivals." 

Or, as Daniel Pryor put it, "the shared attitude amongst both movements is .. that they can tolerate anything except the outgroup." 

In a piece for the Center for Stateless Society, Pryor suggests that framing things as "libertarians versus social justice warriors" leaves much to be desired. Sure, "social justice" may be a heated and hated term today, but libertarians certainly aren't opposed to social justice goals offhand. "Rather than framing the debate as cultural libertarianism versus social justice, opponents of big government should take the best of both and discard what doesn't work," writes Pryor.  "In the end, it's perfectly consistent to be a cultural libertarian and a social justice warrior when one weeds out the authoritarian strains that exist in both."