Thanks to Daniel Bier, Matt Welch, and Timothy P. Carney for their thoughtful responses.
Carney asks whether socially conservative people should feel welcome in the kind of libertarian movement I envision. I certainly hope so. I very much want an inclusive movement that makes people welcome despite varying visions of the good life. My concern is with the use of social pressure to suppress diversity, not with the embrace of particular mores by subgroups within the movement that don’t seek to pressure others to adopt them, including quite conservative ones.
I quite agree with Carney that libertarianism can and must include support for freedom of expression, freedom of association, and property rights, and therefore for the freedom not to engage in transactions that individuals judge to be immoral. It will be clear that I strongly support same-sex relationships. And I should note that even those who regard such relationships as injurious to the participants (and perhaps to others) need neither intend the injuries they believe such relationships involve nor unfairly facilitate these injuries simply because they, for instance, bake wedding cakes for same such couples. However, I certainly believe that libertarians can and should defend the rights of those who object to same-sex relationships to avoid baking wedding cakes, and engaging in other voluntary actions, when they wish to do so. Similarly, I find the idea of a ban on the burqa preposterous and thoroughly unlibertarian. Like Carney, I am disappointed that this year’s Libertarian Party nominees have failed to embrace the rights of those even with objectionable views to act nonviolently on those views. And I would not for an instant want to see a commitment to the sort of cultural freedom I favor cashed out in terms of the use of state power to interfere with nonviolent behavior of which I happened to disapprove.
I don’t believe I disagreed with anything Matt Welch asserted. For the record, while I am skeptical about electoral politics for multiple reasons, I am quite happy for telegenic libertarians to do their thing without being dismissed as squishes.
Of course I agree with Daniel Bier that communities ought to be able to embrace a variety of norms. And indeed I think it’s clear that communities need norms to flourish: normless communities fall apart. The question, I think, is largely one of which norms communities ought to embrace.
The Libertarian Party is not necessarily devoted to winning elections, of course. Whether the party’s primary function is success in electoral politics or education has been an ongoing debate since its founding. Certainly, I think the educational mission needs to be treated as essential, whether or not the electoral mission is given significant weight as well. As I’ve already noted, I am not interested in dismissing attempts to work through mainstream institutions in the fashion currently being attempted by Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. But if I were an uncommitted voter, I would have little reason to turn away from Johnson and Weld simply because members of their party let their freak flags fly.
Bier is surely right that there can be value in seeing different patterns of life put on display in different communities with different norms. My own preference would be for norms that encourage people to welcome individual diversity.
A conservative can be a libertarian, and a libertarian can be a conservative—unless we define libertarian to include “not conservative.”
Gary Chartier’s vision for libertarianism—liberating people not only from government but also from social censure and maybe even from moral strictures—leaves a conservative libertarian with two worries at least.
First: Is this big tent of lifestyle libertarianism big enough to include religious conservatives, whose lifestyles include such eccentric behavior as aspiring to celibacy before marriage; binding family-building, love, and sex inextricably together; and valuing the lives of all humans, even those still in their mothers’ wombs?
Second: By stretching libertarianism beyond an approach to government, does libertarianism contradict itself, and open the gates for big government?
Chartier’s essay didn’t have room for these discussions, but since the Libertarian Party presidential ticket seems to be running against conservatives and is consistently hostile to religious liberty, the libertarian-friendly conservative has to worry: Are libertarians subordinating liberty to license?
A Distinction: Cultural Pluralism or Cultural Liberalism
Chartier discusses two distinct understandings of libertarianism but at times blurs them together. They need to be pulled apart. Chartier suggests libertarians attach themselves to “human variety, even eccentricity” and also to “liberation more broadly.” These are separable ideas.
Celebrating lifestyle pluralism is one thing. Attaching libertarianism to certain lifestyles—namely “liberating lifestyles”—is another.
Does libertarianism want to say, “Come as you are”? Or does it want to say, “Come with your liberating lifestyle”? Specifically, are social conservatives, whose lifestyles may not always be described as “liberati[ng] more broadly,” part of this jubilee of diversity?
Many lifestyle libertarians suggest not.
Libertarian Party Presidential nominee Gary Johnson described the LP as “socially liberal.” In contrast, other LP members such as John Buckley, a pro-life gay statewide candidate in West Virginia, use the term “socially tolerant.”
Chartier, citing the embarrassment-causing strip-tease by a candidate at the LP convention, repeatedly welcomes “strippers” into the libertarian circle. In a telling contrast, Gary Johnson has supported a ban on Burkas.
So libertarians agree that there is no maximum allowable flesh exposure, but the debate is over whether libertarians should have a minimum.
Johnson has dropped his support for a Burka ban, but he stands behind his support for coerced catering: Repeatedly while seeking the nomination, Johnson said that anti-discrimination laws should require Christian businessmen and businesswomen to violate their consciences and participate in gay weddings.
In these religious-liberty issues we run headfirst into the conflict between liberating lifestyles and lifestyle pluralism. Let’s consider some examples: Lifestyle pluralism would involve fighting for the liberty of wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin to live her life and conduct her business according to the dictates of her conscience. Little Sisters of the Poor are still in a legal battle with the Obama administration over whether Obamacare can force the order of nuns to secure contraception insurance for the order’s staff. Catholic Hospitals have faced a series of lawsuits from the ACLU over their refusal to abort babies. And religious schools and homeschooling parents worry that a Clinton administration will come after them as European governments have come after religious homeschooling.
A “socially liberal” party might say, Pshaw! To hell with these bigots and their constricting moralities.
But restrictive moral codes are not necessarily at odds with the libertarian view of government. An orthodox Christian can say that premarital sex and gay sex is wrong, hold these as general rules applicable to all, and even publicly articulate this view—yet still believe government should have no role in enforcing the rules.
Christianity explicitly allows for a civil law that is more liberal than the moral law. The Catholic Church prohibits contraception, but the catechism never suggests the government should ban it.
Throughout history, religious conservatives, including Christians, have legislated their morality. But in America’s culture wars today, the cultural Left is more likely than the cultural Right to use state power. The Left has won gay marriage and abortion on demand. The cultural Right’s central cause today is fighting to be left alone. Nobody’s trying to outlaw contraception—they’re fighting to be free not to pay for it.
Siding with the cultural Left in these fights may win more young voters than siding with the cultural Right—but it’s certainly a lot less libertarian.
Is Humanae Vitae kinky enough for the lifestyle libertarians?
Chartier cites “the presence on stage of strippers, the presence in the audience of innumerable geeky subcultures—from Star Trek fans to practitioners of polyamory—that are often either ignored or mocked by the self-proclaimed mavens of the mainstream.”
Religious conservatives are also “often either ignored or mocked by the … mavens of the mainstream.” That is, one of the experiments in living against which state power today is increasingly harnessed is life as an observant Christian in the modern world. Following the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception puts one in a tiny minority—a minority targeted by state and federal coercion.
It doesn’t get much more laissez faire than Humanae Vitae, the Church document warning against “The Regulation of Birth.” Is Natural Family Planning within a lifelong monogamous marriage a kinky enough alternative lifestyle for the Lifestyle Libertarians?
Given the cultural Left’s assault on the freedom of conscience, social conservatives may be more open to libertarian arguments today. Chartier’s vision of libertarianism as a haven for alternative lifestyles could appeal to observant Christians more as they become a religious minority.
Broaden the Mandate, Shrink the Tent
Amid its appeals, Chartier’s vision has plenty of philosophical and social pitfalls. One problem is that whittling away at shared cultural norms could undermine liberty and expand the state. But Chartier’s argument was mostly about pragmatic politics, and so I’ll make my final point in that vein.
In politics, we often find “strange bedfellow” alliances. Feminists team up with law-and-order conservatives for new laws on domestic violence. Progressives team up with libertarians and Tea Partiers to battle corporate welfare. Alliances like these last as long the subject matter is kept narrow—because the areas of agreement between these groups are narrow.
Libertarianism, if it is to expand beyond a movement of dedicated ideologues, might need to be a long-lasting “strange bedfellows” alliance. That means it needs to keep its focus narrow. The most natural focus of libertarianism can be this: Government abuses its power, is wasteful and inefficient, bosses people around, and enriches the insiders; government needs to be constrained so that people can live their lives free of coercion and state violence.
This stance can attract many conservatives, some leftists, and many people who have tuned out of politics because they have so much distaste for politicians. But if you nail more planks onto libertarianism, and you make it about a lifestyle, you may find fewer and fewer people standing with you.
The Striptease Heard ‘Round the World was indeed an interesting gut-check (sorry!) for both the Libertarian Party and those of us active in the broader project of making libertarian arguments in a stubbornly statist world. I consider it both a dereliction of journalistic duty and a personal badge of honor that I got up and left the LP convention floor at the precise moment that James Weeks turned on the music and started getting delegates to put their hands together—I had no way of knowing we were about to reach Defcon 2 for man-boobage, but I’ve hung around libertarians long enough to sense when things are about to go pear-shaped. Plus I had a flight to catch for an MSNBC appearance to talk about the Libertarian Party.
The happy news about this debate is that we wouldn’t be having it at all if either libertarianism or the LP were dying on the vine. The C-SPAN cameras and the 250 media accreditations (compared to maybe one-tenth that number four years before) heightened the contradictions between flying freak flags and breaking through to the mainstream. When’s the last time a Libertarian nominee for president reached double digits in nine national polls? Four years ago Gary Johnson was organizing pathetic, please-cover-me protests at CNN; now the network is feting him with million-viewer town halls. You don’t worry about the off-putting weirdos when no one’s watching.
James Weeks is an embodiment of what Gary Chartier rightly celebrates as the libertarian value “not just [of] political freedom but also social, cultural, and psychic freedom.” There is something genuinely inspiring about the way Libertarian Party activists matter-of-factly work shoulder to shoulder with people not otherwise similar to one another: The gal with the pink hair and Statue of Liberty hat is valued just as much as the dudebro-ish former Fox Business Network producer and the pot-smoking former Republican governor of New Mexico. (The one from Massachusetts, though, is a bit of a different story.)
The Baskin-Robbins-like rainbow of libertarian flavors these days suggests a movement that is both intrinsically tolerant and increasingly—I know this is going to sound weird—mature. You don’t just get to libertarianism anymore through doors marked “Rand,” “Heinlein,” and “Friedman”; there are now mugged-by-the-police-state Radley Balko libertarians, backwoods hippie-anarchist DIYers in New Hampshire, even a small but noticeable contingent of cranky contrarians among baseball’s sabermetric set.And looming above all of them over the past decade is Ron Paul, even though the kids who discovered free market ideas through the septuagenarian obstetrician share few of his more traditionalist cultural quirks.
My distinct anecdotal impression over the 15 years that I’ve been writing for Reason is that the amount of libertarian-on-libertarian catfighting, the interminable policing over who is and is not a real libertarian, has subsided, or at least been subsumed by the flood of eager new entrants who have little interest in old war stories about Murray Rothbard falling out with the Koch brothers. Sure, various institutions and personalities continue to be in competition and occasional conflict, but the overall importance of this stuff is diminishing over time. Unlike, oh I don’t know, conservatism, there is no looming schism in libertarianism that will force people to take sides in a civil war.
Such is the open appreciation of libertarian variegation that arguably the most beloved character at this year’s LP convention was fifth-place presidential finisher Marc Allan Feldman, who won delegates’ hearts by rapping, improbably, about the Libertarian Big Tent:
Feldman, who tragically died less than a month later, demonstrated that even in the Summer of Weeks, there is still a sizable Libertarian appreciation of not-ready-for-prime-time behavior while the C-SPAN cameras roll. But it’s also true that his unorthodox plea for inter-Libertarian tolerance and unification was coming from a sense of concern over sectarian recrimination. And much of that recrimination comes not from the squares looking to exile the freaks, but from the radicals who rail against squishy sellouts.
Fourth-place presidential finisher Darryl W. Perry, who ran as the representative of “The Libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party,” embodied that spirit in his fiery concession speech at the convention. “The Libertarian Party is at a crossroads,” Perry began, and, well, watch for yourself:
Now stand back and imagine that vein-throbbing, fist-pounding, ear-twirling performance for 90 minutes with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. On second thought, maybe that would be kind of awesome….
Here is a widely understood though rarely acknowledged truth, not just about libertarianism, but all manners of heavily outnumbered movements and ideological groupings: Marginalized blocs attract marginal people. And lest there be any confusion, I see this as a key selling point.
I want Darryl Perry to freak out the squares with fiery denunciations of drivers’ licenses, even though I don’t agree with him (or better said, I haven’t thought about the question for even one minute, and may in 15 years come around to his point of view, who knows?). I enjoy having a perfect track record of never voting for an actual president; being on the winning political team would almost certainly make me anxious. Hopeless causes and political Islands of Misfit Toys are fundamentally attractive to some of us off-centered types.
But there are key moments when marginalized subgroups find themselves on the verge of breaking through to the mainstream, and we may just be in one of them. The question is, how do you deal at such times with the tension between a movement’s roughest edges and its grandest aspirations? (And note that this isn’t just the isolated case of James Weeks stripping at the LP convention; it’s also the Free State Project organizers this year terminating their collaboration with and disinviting from their annual PorcFest celebration Free Talk Live host Ian Freeman, over “his statements regarding the age of consent.” In times of change and stress, movements police their outer boundaries.)
As a non-member of (though frequent voter for) the Libertarian Party, I was disappointed that James Weeks got suspended from the LP. The action carried not a small whiff of insecurity that all the party’s measurable momentum is fragile and susceptible to sudden reversal. I have witnessed over the years other moments of we-blew-it despair, from the controversies over Ron Paul’s old newsletters, to his son’s failure to launch in the 2016 campaign, to Gary Johnson’s awkward performance on CNN (“I fear we shall not have our moment,” a prominent Libertarian supporter texted me after the town hall. “The road has just become longer”). And as Darryl Perry demonstrates, the temptation toward apocalyptic doom is not limited to the “adults.”
Libertarians should have more confidence in the long-term prospects for their ideas, and resist the temptation to see any particular moment or political campaign as some kind of make-or-break hinge point. The ideas will survive man-boobs—in fact, some of the best ideas will be hatched precisely from the freakiest quarters.
But the tolerance works both ways. Having “telegenic” libertarians present themselves professionally in national political discussions is a good thing, not something to dismiss or resent. Any culture of freedom and tolerance that doesn’t also include freedom and tolerance for the squares and the squishes is failing to live up to its promise.
The good news is that both libertarianism and the LP have roughly arrived at places where that kind of two-way tolerance is the rule, not the exception. America is a weird place. It’s filled with weird people who increasingly don’t fit into the traditionally dominant political cultures. Those people should know that there’s a big tent around the corner, waiting to welcome them in all their glorious individuality.
Gary Chartier recounts how at the 2016 Libertarian Party convention, activist James Weeks mounted the stage to speak as a purported candidate for the LP National Committee chair. As C-SPAN cameras rolled, he danced around, stripped out of his suit, and, at the end of his two minutes, said, “Sorry, that was a dare — I’m gonna go ahead and drop out.”
NBC, CNN, and other major media outlets had a good time with the bizarre and amusing clip. After the nomination of former governors Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, it was probably the second-most reported event of the well-covered convention.
On stage, Weeks was booed and heckled by many delegates, and he later had his membership suspended by the party. In the aftermath, many conservative and libertarian commentators criticized or mocked the party, holding up Weeks’ performance as evidence the party isn’t “serious” or “ready for primetime.” Many libertarians worried about the effect the publicity would have on the party’s respectability and credibility in an election where its chances have never looked better.
Chartier thinks that this widespread condemnation (and the philosophy it represents) risks endangering something valuable about the libertarian movement—indeed, “one of the most compelling and attractive features of libertarianism”—its “culture of freedom” and the “social, cultural, and psychic liberation” it offers to “people who need a place to belong.”
Chartier argues that despite libertarianism’s philosophical grounding in resistance to political power and state coercion, the movement also offers people a freedom from social pressures and social conformity. He writes,
The modern libertarian movement has rarely if ever found it possible to cabin the reach of its partisans’ passion for freedom within narrowly political bounds. … Rather, it has also importantly been a movement that has reflected a deep desire for social, cultural, and psychic liberation. There are important differences between these kinds of freedom on the one hand and political freedom on the other. …
Nonetheless, the analogy between freedom from the aggressive use of force and freedom from social pressure is not a superficial or trivial one. In each case, other people seek to subject us to their wills, to make us do what they want for reasons that are not our own. They seek to manipulate our actions by imposing, or threatening to impose, serious costs if we don’t comply with their wishes. …
There is, in short, a natural fit between the desire for freedom from state control and the desire for other kinds of freedom. Similarly, there is a natural fit between the desire for social, cultural, and psychic freedom and the distinguishable but related appreciation for human variety, even eccentricity.
Therefore, if the libertarian movement wants to consistently advocate freedom and demonstrate its value, it should create a social space where its members are free from the typical societal pressures. The movement should offer “the kind of contemporary community” that enthusiastically celebrates “the reality and value of human diversity.”
James Weeks, whose five minutes of fame were spent fulfilling an epic dare, is apparently meant to be an example of the kind of open and diverse culture that libertarians should promote both within the movement and as the movement itself.
The first question here is the superficial one of time, place, and manner. Maybe on stage, with half the nation’s media watching, seeking to represent the party, isn’t the time and place to celebrate a diversity of clothing options. Maybe Burning Man is a better place for that kind of radical self-expression. Or literally anywhere else.
There’s also a functional concern here. The LP is one organ of the libertarian movement: a political party. The purpose of a political party is, ostensibly, to get votes and drag the window of political possibilities in a certain direction. It’s not meant to function as a social club for geeks, strippers, and oddballs, even if we its members are geeks, strippers, and oddballs. I doubt, for instance, that Weeks would want Gary Johnson to dance and strip on TV if he makes it into the presidential debates, even if it shows the world how uninhibited and eccentric libertarians are. Libertarians have long fought against the assumption that if they want an option to be available, tolerated, and legal that it means they endorse that way of living.
Weeks’ performance is also not a particularly good example of behavior in Chartier’s socially free culture. It was done on a dare, specifically intended to shock and outrage. There has to be a social norm in the LP against party officials stripping on television for the motive to make sense. If the audience had sat respectfully and clapped politely at the end, it wouldn’t have been a daring act. Acts of shocking nonconformity can be valuable, but they have to have some community culture to clash with—it can’t be just one hand clapping. A community that accepts everything equally has no nonconformists because it has no distinct norms.
Chartier acknowledges the distinction between freedom from state coercion and freedom from social pressures. But in drawing the analogy, he implies there is something inherently problematic with people voluntarily forming their own communities, businesses, institutions, and organizations with their own shared norms and rules. This is not trying to “subject others to their will” or trying to manipulate people by threatening social penalties, but rather practicing their own freedom to form their own externally diverse but internally cohesive (or uninhibited) communities, based on mutual agreement.
There are many groups and subcultures whose community norms are incompatible with the way that most people want to live, just as there are often widespread cultural norms that are incompatible with the way that subcultures want to live. I imagine that nudist resorts, for instance, may have a norm against clothing. There’s nothing unfree about a diversity of cultures, organizations, and communities with uniform internal rules created to serve a common purpose.
Chartier notes, quite rightly, that “social improvement happens when people put alternative patterns of life on display,” and others are free to judge the quality and allure of those “experiments in living.” But much of what people are judging in those instances is the quality of alternative social rules and relationships.
To truly observe a full range of social choices, you must allow for communities where choice is curtailed by social pressure and consensus. A society populated by subcultures offering different and competing ways of living is thick with extra-political norms, full of contradictory and context-dependent rules—and even within one subculture, people move freely among different dress codes and fashion expectations at work, home, and the gym, without necessarily wishing that everyone at the pool or office dressed like nobody was watching them (or judging).
Though he argues against the caricature of libertarianism as atomistic, Chartier’s vision of a radically uninhibited society—starting with a radically uninhibited Libertarian convention—seems incompatible with competing communities of social, commercial, and political order. It suggests a monoculture of universal idiosyncrasy and uniform acceptance, in which, after “thou shalt not initiate force,” the second commandment is “thou shalt not socially pressure others.”
To pluralists like Chartier—and myself—tolerance is important not just because nobody knows the best way to live for everyone, but because we want to live in a thriving, liberal, heterogeneous society of experimentation and social dynamism that cultivates prosperity, respect, and political freedom. But that means having a thriving debate about the best ways for living and a fierce competition among different forms of social order.
The conclusion of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia clearly elucidates the connection between libertarian political freedom and the diversity and social freedom cherished by Chartier. “Utopia,” said Nozick, “is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others”:
Some communities will be abandoned, others will struggle along, others will split, others will flourish, gain members, and be duplicated elsewhere. Each community must win and hold the voluntary adherence of its members. No pattern is imposed on everyone, and the result will be one pattern if and only if everyone voluntarily chooses to live in accordance with that pattern of community. …
Treating us with respect by respecting our rights, [the minimal state] allows us, individually or with whom we please, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more? Or less?
Indeed. We need not ask any more from the libertarian movement than to get us there.
When it was time for James Weeks to address the delegates at the Libertarian Party’s 2016 convention in Orlando, Florida, he chose to do something memorable. Weeks, a candidate for the position of Libertarian National Committee chair, began to remove his clothing on stage while he danced and cheered.
Some delegates were amused; others were offended—calling Weeks “a moron” and “an idiot”—and some were offended enough to propose that Weeks’s party membership be suspended, which it soon was. Many of the journalists covering the convention doubtless couldn’t believe what they were seeing. At a national political convention—receiving unprecedented media attention because the presumptive presidential nominee, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, seemed to offer such a sane and likable alternative to Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton—a candidate for party office was stripping on stage.
Writing at PowerLine, Steven Hayward mused: “But above all one wonders whether the Libertarian Party really doesn’t care about practical politics at all—that’s it all just one big prank, the political equivalent of the Star Wars cantina scene.” Similarly, Travis Irvine at the Huffington Post told readers:
The Libertarian Party is an odd and beautiful assortment of gold-loving economists, LGBT community members, gun nuts, potheads, disenfranchised Republicans/Democrats and sometimes just crazy people. That’s why if you saw coverage of the Libertarian National Convention, you would’ve noticed people dressed in plastic or rapping presidential candidates or even half-naked candidates for party chairman, as every libertarian likes to get creative with their freedom in their own way. To quote Charlie Earl, Ohio’s Libertarian candidate for governor in 2014 (who was removed from the ballot thanks to failed presidential candidate John Kasich) the Libertarian Party is a “big tent party, but it’s a circus tent.”
The Weeks incident figured repeatedly in soul-searching conversations among libertarians while the convention was going on and afterward. They didn’t just focus on Weeks, of course. There seemed to be a widely shared perception that the LP might not have put its best foot forward in Orlando, on national television, under the scrutiny of a myriad of political reporters. While praising party pragmatists, Reason’s Matt Welch wrote:
The Libertarian Party may appear to outside observers as a freakshow—journalists love snapping pics of the colourfully dressed Executive Committee member named Starchild, an “erotic service provider” from San Francisco; and C-SPAN viewers were surely spitting out their coffee when a delegate during the proceedings Sunday suggested naming as official Party mascot Dobby the Harry Potter house-elf . . . .
In short, some observers—libertarian and otherwise—wondered if the libertarian movement really wasn’t ready for prime time.
I understand the frustration. It’s an insane political year, one in which libertarian candidates really might have a chance to attract significant support. This is not a time for amateurism and naiveté. Candidates likely to win elections in today’s climate are most unlikely to pass all my ideological litmus tests, but I have no time for the ideological purism that makes the perfect the enemy of the good.
At the same time, though, I wonder if the critics aren’t missing something of moral, political, human importance about the LP’s, and the libertarian movement’s culture of freedom.
The libertarian movement has consistently embraced human diversity. Reflecting on his experience at the 1972 LP convention, long-time movement hand Ed Crane quipped to Brian Doherty, “I knew as a libertarian that it was imperative to be tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Until I walked into that convention hall, I had no idea how many alternatives there were.”
Many libertarians like to talk about libertarianism as a narrowly political idea. On this view, it has to do exclusively with limiting the use of force—ideally, with ruling out every instance of force that’s neither defensive nor remedial. The freedom libertarians want, therefore, is understood freedom from aggressive, violent coercion.
That idea is attractive—for its minimalism and its inclusiveness. But the modern libertarian movement has rarely if ever found it possible to cabin the reach of its partisans’ passion for freedom within narrowly political bounds. Libertarianism has rarely if ever been a movement animated solely by a concern with political freedom. Rather, it has also importantly been a movement that has reflected a deep desire for social, cultural, and psychic liberation.
There are important differences between these kinds of freedom on the one hand and political freedom on the other. The use of force is a particularly intrusive way of constraining people’s options, one that forecloses possibilities more strikingly than perhaps any other. A bright-line rule precluding its initiation makes a lot of sense as a central element of the architecture of a civilized society. Nonetheless, the analogy between freedom from the aggressive use of force and freedom from social pressure is not a superficial or trivial one. In each case, other people seek to subject us to their wills, to make us do what they want for reasons that are not our own. They seek to manipulate our actions by imposing, or threatening to impose, serious costs if we don’t comply with their wishes. And psychic constraints are not so different, either, especially since they often involve internalized demands first articulated by others in our social worlds. As John Stuart Mill rightly observed, “There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”
So it is hardly surprising that people who value political freedom should also be people who value social, cultural, and psychic freedom. There is no logical contradiction between valuing the one kind of freedom while being indifferent or even opposed to the other. But Charles Johnson is nonetheless right that, “while there’s nothing logically inconsistent about a libertarian envisioning—or even championing—. . . [non-violently maintained authoritarianism and hierarchicalism], it would certainly be weird.” There is, in short, a natural fit between the desire for freedom from state control and the desire for other kinds of freedom. Similarly, there is a natural fit between the desire for social, cultural, and psychic freedom and the distinguishable but related appreciation for human variety, even eccentricity.
Some people who don’t fit in for one reason or another may find themselves drawn to the libertarian movement because their own particular varieties of idiosyncratic humanness are forcibly disfavored by the state. But others—many others, one suspects—find libertarianism attractive because, quite apart from their opposition to the aggressive use of force, they understand the libertarian movement as offering the promise of freedom—not just freedom in a future free society but also freedom in the kind of contemporary community populated by those who are animated by the thirst for liberation more broadly.
And there are multiple reasons the participants in a social movement might welcome and, indeed, seek actively to foster this kind of ethos.
There is, first of all, the simple moral point that most of us don’t like to be told what to do, to be pushed around, and that it is therefore unreasonable for us, most of the time, to tell others what to do, to push them around.
But there’s more to be said than that. Not pushing other people around isn’t just a reflection of fairness: it also embodies an awareness of the reality of human diversity. Human beings have different histories, different physical constitutions, different psyches, different capacities, different commitments. Because they do, there are many different ways in which their lives can go well.
No doubt any life we could recognize as a human one would exhibit certain characteristics in virtue of which there might be limits on just who the person whose life it was could be expected to flourish. But these limits are rather general ones—even when acting reasonably, and so morally, is recognized as among the necessary features of a flourishing life, and even when acting reasonably is understood as including the choices we make with respect to our own flourishing as well as the flourishing of others. Humans differ from each other, often quite dramatically. If so, it seems to me, then, because how someone can flourish will be a function of how she or he is, as it were, put together, then the ways in which people will flourish can be expected to differ, perhaps quite dramatically, as well. One of the great beauties of human existence is the immense variation humans, left to their own devices, can put on display in their attempts to discover and embody congenial approaches to flourishing.
In principle, we ought to be able to acknowledge that the other people in our lives may flourish in ways quite different from the ways in which we ourselves live well. Certainly, we can see an at-least-inchoate recognition of the diversity of ways of living well behind the libertarian movement’s now-predictable quirkiness, the presence on stage of strippers, the presence in the audience of innumerable geeky subcultures—from Star Trek fans to practitioners of polyamory—that are often either ignored or mocked by the self-proclaimed mavens of the mainstream.
What the libertarian movement has persistently offered its members is a more-than-tolerant, indeed, a positively enthusiastic (in many, if not all, cases) celebration of the reality and value of human diversity. A convention that features strippers and Trekkers and other -ers of all sorts embodies the kind of variety that ought to be appreciated and cherished in the wider human community. The libertarian movement can and should serve as a model of the kind of community libertarians seek to see realized more broadly. Instead of being embarrassed by the diversity on display at the LP convention, libertarians can and should say, “Those are my peeps. They’re welcome here. I’m working to help build a world in which that’s true, not just at a convention, but across our communities, throughout our society.”
Of course, it’s not just the reality and value of diverse ways of flourishing that make the libertarian movement’s big-ten approach appealing. Other factors are relevant, too.
We can often see that people can flourish, can find genuine fulfillment, even when their lives are quite different from our own. In this case, we can embrace accepting their differences from us as unqualifiedly good. But sometimes, of course, we simply can’t be sure. Sometimes, we may wonder if their choices are foolish or self-destructive.
And sometimes, obviously, their choices may be both. Affirming the value of freedom and diversity is a far cry from embracing relativism or subjectivism. The key case for freedom and diversity is precisely that, objectively speaking, there are many ways in which people’s lives can go well. But the reality of human fallibility and ignorance is such that we can rarely be confident regarding our own judgments about how other individuals ought to live their lives. That’s true even if we assume, arguendo, that we are right about a broad range of relevant moral principles—even all of them. For we won’t necessarily know about the various relevant features of other people’s lives or their circumstances, and we will therefore be prone to making mistakes about how to apply the relevant principles.
Our difficulty in doing so will be a function of a broad range of intellectual and moral deficiencies on our part. Our penchant for self-deception will be especially important. So, too, will be the insecurity that prompts us to seek confirmation for our own life choices in the choices of others. We want, in short, to believe we have chosen well, and so we want to believe that others are naturally drawn to make the same choices we have. We are thus tempted to ignore choices different from our own, even when they seem to lead to or to constitute flourishing lives, and even, often enough, to actively conceal alternate choices from ourselves, perhaps by eradicating from our social worlds those who make them. Given this sort of temptation, it seems especially crucial that we actively practice the discipline of being open to human diversity.
In addition, the ecology of a flourishing society requires this kind of diversity. Social improvement happens when people put alternative patterns of life on display and when others observe those patterns with sufficient accuracy and empathy that they can tell whether those they observe are flourishing in recognizable ways. The observers can then either reject, modify, or embrace the styles of life they have witnessed others practicing.
Argument matters, no doubt. But this kind of persuasion by example is likely to be far more effective in at least many cases. “Experiments in living,” in Mill’s felicitous phrase, can thus play a crucial role in social progress. Our communities and societies need, therefore, to welcome such experiments. And the libertarian movement can and should both constitute a set of such experiments itself and, at the same time, model for the wider society what a fruitful ecology of social innovation might actually look like. Quoting Mill’s memorable phrases again is irresistible in this context:
In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character was abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.
Libertarians are sometimes seen as heartless advocates of an asocial (or even antisocial) atomism. But the very nonconformity that bothers so many observers, and so many libertarians, about the movement when it finds itself in the public eye is also one of the many features of libertarianism that highlights just how wrong-headed this criticism is. Libertarians instinctively value not just political freedom but also social, cultural, and psychic freedom. The libertarian movement makes clear what it might mean actively to value the richness of human diversity, to discipline our tendencies to censoriousness and conformity in light of our own ignorance, and to welcome experiments in living as essential preconditions of social innovation. In so doing, it highlights its commitment to human community at its best.
I don’t doubt the value of contributions to nuts-and-bolts policy debates or the worth of securing a telegenic libertarian candidate a place in the national presidential debates. I certainly understand the urge to embrace professionalism, to be serious. But the libertarian movement shouldn’t abandon its openness to the eccentric and the idiosyncratic. By modeling inclusiveness, the movement not only offers an inherently valuable welcoming embrace to people who need a place to belong—it also highlights for the watching public one of the most compelling and attractive features of libertarianism. In addition to offering the public candidates and policy wonks, the libertarian movement can and should offer the tremendous gift that it is uniquely positioned to give—the inspiring example of a culture of freedom.