In Praise of Norms We Are Free to Reject

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.

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.