The Libertarian Cultural Dinner

A number of libertarian friends gathered together for dinner one night. While they ate, they debated the nature of the relationship between libertarianism and culture. This was their discussion.

The Characters

Menos: He is the host. He generally shares mainstream liberal cultural values. However, he is unsure whether libertarianism itself entails any particular values, or if it should be considered only a narrowly political doctrine.

Philanthropos: He believes that libertarians should naturally embrace liberal cultural values, particularly those celebrating diversity and tolerance of other people. He feels that libertarians should encourage others to adopt these cultural values in the same way that they encourage others to support political libertarianism.

Karterikos: He believes that libertarianism is a narrowly political doctrine; however, he doesn’t really care about the cultural preferences of others. He doesn’t talk much about his own cultural preferences.

Polynomos: He doesn’t care about the cultural preferences of others. Moreover, he believes that libertarians necessarily should not pass judgment on the cultural preferences of others. His own cultural commitments are unknown.

Xenophobus: Although he embraces political libertarianism, he happens to be a racist. He dislikes blacks and Jews, and he avoids them whenever possible. He believes that libertarianism is a narrowly political doctrine, so he sees no contradiction between his racism and libertarianism.

The Discussion

Menos: Well, now. We’re all agreed, then, about political libertarianism, aren’t we? Not to put too fine a point on it, but we agree as libertarians that people ought to be free to do as they please, so long as they aren’t inflicting positive harm on someone else? That force will not be justified beyond the extent necessary to prevent people from injuring others?

Philanthropos: Yes, of course, more or less, we all agree.

Menos: All right, fine. But what about culture? Does libertarianism, as a philosophy, require a certain cultural outlook?

Karterikos: What do you mean by “culture”?

Polynomos: And what do you mean “require”? Didn’t we just agree that force should only be used to prevent people from injuring each other?

Menos: Right, I don’t mean to ask whether libertarians should be forced to behave in certain ways, I’m just wondering if they ought to believe certain things, in the same way we would agree that they ought to believe that political libertarianism is true.

By culture I mean, well, even to the extent that our actions don’t injure others, ought we, as libertarians, behave a certain way? Is libertarianism just a doctrine opposing the use of force? Are all non-coercive preferences created equal? Or does libertarianism have something to say about how we should exercise our freedom?

Philanthropos: Well, you don’t believe that all preferences are equal, do you?

Menos: Well no, of course not. I’m sure there are all sorts of non-violent actions that we would agree are wrong. For example, none of us would support refusing to work with someone because of their race.

Xenophobos: I would.

Menos: Oh… right. But anyway, I’m not just asking if some cultures or behaviors are better than others. I’m asking if we should believe that a certain culture is best entirely by virtue of our libertarianism? Or put another way, do certain cultural attitudes flow naturally from libertarianism?

Xenophobos: Ugh. This again?

Karterikos: Well, you all know where I stand. Libertarianism is a doctrine about the use of force, and that’s all. So long as we are not exercising physical coercion against others, our behavior just isn’t relevant to libertarianism. Libertarianism is consistent with all sorts of lifestyles. You can be a Christian libertarian. You can be an atheist libertarian. You can be a libertarian hermit, or you can be one in a city. Personally, I don’t much mind how other people choose to live, so long as they don’t hurt others.

Xenophobos: I agree. Libertarianism is about letting people live as they please, it has no culture. How I want to live my life is, far away from blacks and Jews. They creep me out! I think you would all admit that they’re pretty unpleasant to be around.

Menos: Of course we won’t!

Philanthropos: I’m Jewish.

Xenophobos: Anyway, I just want them to leave me alone. I may not have any right to tell them what to do, but no one has a right to boss me around either. I don’t want to do business with blacks or Jews, and I don’t want to live with them either. I hate being around people who aren’t like me, and none of you doubt it. I wouldn’t have bothered coming if I had known Philanthropos would be here! If libertarianism is about letting people live their lives the way they want to, then why should I have to embrace differences that I hate?

Philanthropos: You are repellent.

Libertarianism isn’t just a narrow political doctrine; it has natural cultural implications. It is a broad philosophy that celebrates personal autonomy writ large. Of course, libertarianism has political consequences, but that’s just a particular instance of a larger principle, the importance of autonomy and self-actualization.

Not all coercion is physical or political. Culture can be coercive too. Perhaps moderate Christians and atheists can be libertarians, but what about religious extremists? No libertarian could be comfortable with a culture that practiced female child circumcision, could they?

Karterikos: That goes beyond mere culture; it’s private coercion. We’d all agree that was illegitimate.

Menos: Children are a touchy subject. The proper scope of parental authority is a difficult question, but it obscures the issue of culture more generally. Let’s move on.

Philanthropos: Fine.

But culture can be coercive in plenty of ways that have nothing to do with physical aggression or parental authority. Take racism, for example. Even without legally enforced segregation, racism can destroy a person’s capacity for true self-actualization. Imagine that your friends and family would disown you if you chose to marry outside your race. Or imagine if whites refused to buy from a business if they saw it sell to blacks. Don’t these cultures limit freedom in real and significant ways, without violating property rights?

Racism is an extreme example, but it isn’t the only form of coercive culture. Cultures can impose unreasonably harsh expectations on all kinds of things that a person might choose to do. Individuals can be ostracized for listening to the wrong type of music, or eating the wrong kind of foods, or having the wrong sort of political opinions, or staying out too late, or talking to members of the opposite sex, getting married too soon, or refusing to marry. Or a million other things!

Menos: I’ve certainly never heard of anyone who was “ostracized” for listening to the wrong music.

Philanthropos: So? Just because you can’t imagine these situations doesn’t mean they aren’t real. And even if cultural coercion were unlikely, we would still have to consider it in the abstract. If you think that libertarianism should preclude extreme types of cultural exclusion, then you’ve implicitly accepted my point: libertarianism requires a culture of toleration.

Humans are social animals. Nobody can live as a complete pariah to society. It isn’t just psychologically hard, it’s economically impossible. Unless you want to eke out life as a hermit in the wilderness, you have to interact with other human beings. Libertarians recognize human autonomy and self-actualization as central values, but not all cultures empower these values equally. The culture that promotes these values best is an open, accepting, and liberal one, so libertarians should embrace an open, accepting, and liberal culture.

Karterikos: I think that sort of severe social ostracism is unlikely, and the reasons why are important. Culture doesn’t have the force of a legal prohibition. A legal prohibition is absolute, but culture only has the power that individuals are willing to give it. As you say, humans are social animals. We all rely on our interactions with other people, and if we ostracize a person, we give up the benefit of having that person as a friend or business partner. An intolerant culture is costly!

Philanthropos: You underestimate the viciousness of an intolerant culture. It has power because it ostracizes those who refuse to participate in the intolerance. The benefits of making friends with a pariah won’t often be worth giving up the friendship of the rest of society. An intolerant culture is like a self-sustaining monopoly; nobody dares to reject it first.

Polynomos: What you say might be true in a small town or an isolated rural community. But culture is not so monolithic in most places I know. What makes you unattractive to one group makes you attractive to another, and so most societies lack the monopoly powers you claim.

This means that the cost of intolerance is important. If there is no cultural monopoly, but a person is still willing to give something up for their culture, I think that means the person finds value in their culture. To the intolerant person, intolerance is a valuable good.

I agree that libertarianism is about self-actualization, but Philanthropos gets it backwards! It would make no sense to complain that your neighbor’s use of his own money interfered with your own plans for that money. Culture is no different. The culture of your neighbor is part of your neighbor’s self-actualization, not part of yours.

If libertarians believe in self-actualization, we ought to embrace every culture to the extent that it is not physically coercive. In other words, the proper culture of libertarianism is pan-culturalism.

Karterikos: I’m not sure that follows; I think it may be self-contradictory. You say that the culture of libertarianism embraces all cultures, but that’s just impossible. Pan-culturalism is just one culture, and if we embrace it we can’t embrace other cultures. For example, we can’t embrace mono-culturalism, or simple intolerance.

Libertarianism isn’t about cultural tolerance, or cultural meta-tolerance, or anything like that. Libertarianism is about non-coercion. Take your analogy to your neighbor’s money. A libertarian may believe that you don’t have a right to spend your neighbor’s money, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to complain about how he spends his! So long as there is no illegitimate force, libertarianism is silent, so libertarianism should be silent on culture.

Polynomos: There is no contradiction. We should believe naturally, as libertarians, that as humans we can legitimately find value in any sort of culture. The opinions that you or I have about how we want to live or about what way of life is best, are opinions that we legitimately have as individuals.  But in our capacities as libertarians, we should understand the personal importance of all cultures.

Think about it this way. Merely believing that all violence is good does not violate libertarianism – only actual violence does. But a libertarian should not believe that violence is good, in his capacity as a libertarian.

Xenophobos: This is nonsense. You are telling me that as a libertarian I should accept other peoples’ cultures, but as an individual that’s just another thing I don’t want to do! I think most other people’s cultures are crap, and I haven’t forgotten the definition of libertarianism by thinking that.

Philanthropos: How can a person like you exist? If you have so little respect for human beings who are different to you, why do you value their political freedom? Can’t you see how ridiculous you are? You’re an embarrassment to yourself and to us as well.

Xenophobos: You preach tolerance, but have little for me.

Menos: It’s getting late. Perhaps we can continue our conversation another time.


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