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.
“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.