Tolerance Is a Two-Way Street

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.

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.