Debate: Libertarianism Is About More Than the State

Must we have cultural commitments as well as political ones?



The Ideas of Liberty Have Implications for How We Live Our Lives

Matt Zwolinski

Joanna Andreasson

What should libertarians think about the appropriateness of gay marriage? Of drug use? Of the NFL prohibiting players from protesting during the national anthem?

Some think the answer to all of these questions is "nothing." Libertarianism is a political theory. As such, it tells us what the state should and shouldn't do. Gay marriage should be legal. So should using drugs and protesting. But libertarianism says nothing about whether these activities are morally appropriate. In fact, that's kind of the point. For libertarians, just because your action is immoral doesn't give others the right to use violence to stop you from doing it. As long as we respect the rights of others, libertarians believe that we have the right to live our lives our own way—for better or for worse.

There's something to be said for this approach. We libertarians are united by a (rough) agreement on the proper role of the state in society, but we can agree on that point while vigorously disagreeing with each other about a host of other moral, religious, and cultural issues. Tolerance of such disagreement arguably makes for a more effective political coalition (imagine if we had to agree with each other about everything in order to agree about anything). And it keeps separate issues separate. Whether you believe in dramatically shrinking the federal government is one thing; whether you're a cultural conservative, or an atheist, or a hedonic consequentialist are all quite distinct matters.

At least, they're mostly distinct. Libertarianism is a political theory, and not a moral, cultural, or religious one. Still, however we define libertarianism, and whatever our reasons for endorsing it, we are libertarians for some reason. And the reasons we have to endorse libertarianism will often be reasons for endorsing other values, projects, or cultural practices as well.

Take the issue of free speech, for example: At a minimum, libertarians believe that governments are forbidden from using their coercive power to censor private speech. Similarly, most libertarians probably believe that governments should refrain from using coercion to promote some forms of speech over others, for instance by using tax dollars to benefit certain views.

But does libertarianism have anything to say about speech beyond the issue of government coercion? To see how it does, ask yourself why you think free speech is important. There are lots of ways of answering that question, of course. But one of the most common and persuasive forms of argument is that set out in John Stuart Mill's classic, On Liberty. Mill argued that free speech matters because we always have more to learn from what others have to say. Perhaps one of our beliefs is wrong, and listening to others explain their contrary position can help us to detect our error and correct it. Or perhaps we're right! Even still, we can't really understand why we're right and what that means unless we know what those who disagree with us think, and have thought through the question of where they've gone wrong. Either way, a robust marketplace of ideas is essential to intellectual growth and the pursuit of truth.

This argument is probably the best explanation of why government censorship is wrong. But if you agree with that—as most libertarians do—then you should also recognize that the argument isn't merely about government. If you're a stubbornly close-minded person who never listens to the opinions of others, then you're going to have a hard time making progress toward the truth no matter how little government censorship there is. Similarly, if you're a professor of political philosophy who only teaches students to see the world through the lens of a single political ideology, you're doing them a disservice. Mill's argument, if taken seriously, has implications not just for government but for all kinds of private actors. And if Mill's argument, or something like it, is part of what drives us to be libertarians on the issue of free speech, then consistency requires us to take those implications seriously.

What is true of free speech is true of other libertarian commitments as well. Even the fundamental libertarian opposition to aggression isn't merely about state aggression. Nor is it self-justifying. If aggression is wrong, it's wrong for a reason—perhaps because it violates human autonomy, or because it tends to decrease aggregate utility. And just like with free speech, the reasons we have for opposing aggression will often have other implications too—implications for what we should value and what sorts of policies we should support or oppose.

Those implications might not strictly speaking be a part of libertarianism. But they rest on the same logical ground. So while taking them seriously might not make us "better" libertarians, it does make us more consistent ones.


Making Libertarianism About More Than Politics Threatens the Whole Project

Stephanie Slade

On August 7, 2017, James Damore was fired by Google. Two days earlier, Gizmodo had published a 10-page internal memo authored by the software engineer, which the tech site described as an "anti-diversity screed." The document complained that a "silencing" of unpopular views—in particular, views about why the genders aren't equally represented in leadership positions and what should be done about it—had created a lamentable "ideological echo chamber" at the company.

The memo, which suggests that women are on average naturally less well-suited to careers in computer programming, sparked enormous outrage. Voices rose to assert that if it continued to employ Damore, Google would be creating an unwelcome work environment for minorities. But the subsequent decision to terminate his employment too was met with public outcry, with some onlookers arguing the move made a mockery of Google's claim to be a place where "any employee can challenge company orthodoxy."

From a libertarian perspective, which side was in the right? In fact, it's extremely hard to say.

Even among my Reason colleagues there was disagreement on the matter. Some of us observed that the First Amendment protects the right to be free from government censorship and persecution for speech, but that doesn't mean a private employer is required to tolerate every perspective. Surely trying to force a company to keep someone on the payroll conflicts with the libertarian presumption in favor of property rights and free association. Isn't it wrong to use social pressure in such a way?

But others noted that, while businesses should obviously not be prevented by the state from choosing to end an employment relationship, nothing says they can expect to be shielded from disapproval in the court of public opinion for doing so. Google exhibited a craven unwillingness to engage with ideas that aren't perfectly P.C. and a refusal to live out its alleged commitment to dialogue and debate—and it's right to shame the company for it. After all, shouldn't we favor free speech as a cultural value as well as a legal one?

This example highlights the problems with a "thick" understanding of libertarianism as a philosophy that's about more than just the proper role of the state. As this month's special debate issue of Reason demonstrates, there are a lot of different ways to be a libertarian. We aren't even on the same page about whether liberty is a good thing unto itself or just a means of bringing about other happy outcomes. Since we don't all come to our political beliefs from the same place, it's no surprise we don't agree about how to correctly extend them into other areas of life.

But notice that both positions on the Google question that I've sketched above do start with a common assumption: that humans should be free from government coercion to the greatest extent practicable. It's important for there to be a term to describe that view, which all by itself is enough to tip the mainstream, binary vision of American politics on its head. Enter libertarianism.

Trying to expand the philosophy into something that demands certain actions or commitments from us in our private lives needlessly muddies the picture and foments division. Your understanding of libertarianism might lead you to eschew meat eating; mine leads me to see abortion as something very close to murder. Among political libertarians, there are cultural progressives who don't just tolerate but celebrate the proliferation of alternative lifestyle choices; there are also cultural conservatives who want the freedom to voluntarily hew to a more traditional vision of personal morality. Some of us side with Google; others of us with Damore. How useful, really, is a term that professes to be about more than politics but can't answer any of these questions in a reliable way?

Fortunately, libertarianism doesn't have to be about more than politics. Our philosophical common ground gives us a blueprint for a free society, one that carves out and zealously guards open spaces where all these other nonpolitical negotiations can happen safely. Let's not compromise the whole project's structural integrity by asking it to do more than it's capable of.