The Naked Truth about Libertarianism

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Prof. Gary Chartier praises the libertarian movement as a refuge for the eccentric, and for diverse experiments in living. From John Stuart Mill’s invention of that phrase down to the present day, libertarians have aimed to be the change they wish to see in the world — and quite often that means living an out-of-the-mainstream life. Chartier relates the tensions of modern-day libertarian activism to the familiar debate about “thick” versus “thin” libertarianism, in which the latter looks only at political freedom, while the former takes relatively more seriously the chains of social convention.

Response Essays

  • Daniel Bier welcomes a culture of freedom, but he warns that one key aspect of freedom is the ability to form associations based on shared norms, values, and procedures. Without the ability to form such associations, the social value of experiments in living will be much diminished, if it may even be said to exist at all. A radically uninhibited society will be unable to capture this value. Bier closes with a passage from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia in which Nozick praises the ability to form, dissolve, join, and leave communities that may have radically different values. This, the framework for utopia, may be called tolerant, but it does not impose a universal permissiveness.

  • Matt Welch looks at just what makes a political movement want to police its boundaries. He finds nothing wrong with telegenic, “normal”-seeming libertarians making the case as persuasively as possible before a national audience. But he also suggests that the history of weirdness in the libertarian movement… isn’t so weird at all, not when we consider how weird America itself actually is. All the American misfits out there may soon find that there’s a big tent that’s been ready and waiting for them. As old intra-libertarian infighting recedes in importance, a coalition of the squares and the freaks may take its place.

  • Timothy P. Carney asks whether traditional lifestyles are also welcome in the libertarian tent — or is it only the “alternative” ones? Carney distinguishes between cultural pluralism, which crafts policy so that people may craft their own rules for life, and cultural liberalism, which would impose liberal values on everyone, including those who desire to practice personally conservative ways of life. Libertarianism is at a crossroads, he argues; it now must choose between these two paradigms. Embracing cultural liberalism will alienate conservatives and may significantly shrink the never terribly large libertarian tent.