Can I Wear Clothes to the Libertarian Nudist Camp?

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.

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.