The Volokh Conspiracy

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Reasons to tolerate


Libertarians, by any way of measuring, are a small minority. The supposed "libertarian moment" of the 2016 election ended with about 3% support for the libertarian candidate. A libertarian-led politics is not coming any time soon. Nor is, for that matter, an egalitarian politics, or even a utilitarian politics. Indeed, our politics shouldn't be strictly libertarian, or egalitarian, or utilitarian, or anything else.

We often see political campaigns—on the right and the left—promise a "political revolution" in one form or another, led by the ideals of some moral-political theory. These tend to run aground in democratic polities for a fairly simple reason: most people disagree with them. We have a diverse range of views of what constitutes a good life, and what people take to be the right moral system. Indeed, the point of politics is to find ways for people to get along even though they disagree about important moral issues. Liberalism is in part a set of tools for managing this sort of political diversity.

Classical liberals have a rich set of tools to support a robust account of tolerance. The most obvious tool is the non-aggression principle. Put simply, we don't get to force people to do what we'd like them to do. This is usually taken to be a bedrock principle, but it's not hard to see how this might have developed pragmatically. For instance, there is the fact of diversity: people disagree. So one response is to tolerate others. Pragmatically, this may be a good move, especially for those with minority views, like libertarians. Tolerance ensures that you're not dominated by some stronger political coalition. Even if we think about a historically more-or-less equal power balance, like Democrats and Republicans in the United States, tolerance is a good idea. Otherwise, the two parties would just take turns oppressing the other. Rather than subjecting themselves to that kind of abuse, sensible people can decide to mutually disarm. This only takes us so far, though. After all, another approach to dealing with the fact of diversity is to try and eliminate it, if you think you have the power to do so.

So then, what's a more interesting, and perhaps more sustainable way of grounding toleration? Classical liberalism has another approach, which is to show us that diversity is more of a strength than a problem to be solved.

Libertarians, egalitarians, and utilitarians (amongst others) don't merely disagree about what sorts of policies we ought to favor. Their disagreements run far deeper than that. They disagree about what the world is like, and what we should be measuring when we talk about what makes a policy better or worse. Where libertarians are worried about a robust set of negative rights that prevent interference from others, egalitarians are worried about more equal distributions of resources. Utilitarians are concerned with increasing social welfare, even if it comes at a cost of equality or in the scope of negative rights. Each of these political philosophies comes with a perspective on the world—these perspectives help to make them very sensitive to evidence that's salient to their way of looking at the world, but largely ignore other sources of evidence. To put it in a more mundane setting, if Alice is a committed vegan, she doesn't care about the subtle differences between cuts of beef. It's all something that she wouldn't eat. Bob's calorie obsession might make sense given his weight-loss goals, but Carol is a struggling student and is a lot more worried about prices. She doesn't have the energy to devote to worrying about calorie counts when she's trying to stay within a tight budget. Even when looking at the same things in the grocery store, each of them would group the products differently, because they are all paying attention to different features of the foods (whether it is vegan status, caloric content, or price), and not paying attention to others.

Hayek noticed this in the context of markets. Central planners fail and markets succeed not merely because the "calculation problem" of how to best allocate resources for production is too hard, but because central planners don't even know what resources are at our disposal, and what uses we could put them to. Markets help us discover what our resources are, what uses we can put them to, and how we can engage in production. Markets create incentives for all of us to contribute little bits of knowledge into a whole that none of us could conceive of our own. Competition, thus properly understood, isn't just pitting two strategies against each other in a static market, but coming to learn more about the marketplace and taking advantage of this knowledge. Diversity is a boon to markets, because diversity is instrumental in this process of discovery.

Precisely this insight can be brought to bear in our political life. Our social and political lives are far more complex than our market lives—why would we think that a central planner, whether that came in the form of a single person, or a single way of thinking embodied by a perspective and its attendant political philosophy, could do a good job of determining the right rules or policies for governance? No political theory captures everything that we have reason to care about—the world is far too messy. Instead, we need a competition amongst various perspectives, bringing new insights to bear on how we can piece together the rules for living together.

This way of thinking, which I develop in considerably more detail in my recent book, Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance, suggests that we have a self-interested reason for not just tolerance, but a positive interest in fostering a more diverse society. All of our perspectives are limited, but creating a political environment where many different perspectives compete helps us discover a better set of rules for all of us to live by.

Ryan Muldoon is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo. He is the author of Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance (Routledge).