Norms that Encourage Diversity

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.

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.