Monday, August 02, 2004

What Are the Boundaries To Freedom?

Libertarians love freedom. We the opportunity and novelty inherent in the free mind. We love the idea that the state shouldn’t tell us what to do or to think or to buy. We the fact that people can voice any opinion in a free society, even if we don’t always like it. But how far should we defend freedom? As libertarians, should we tolerate racism in our own ideology?

This is the conversation Steve Horwitz and I were having via e-mail last week. His argument is certainly makes sense. Libertarians aren’t rulers of a state and we have the right to say who we identify with. After all, racism, sexism, homophobia and other eighteen century social norms are completely contrary to everything libertarianism stands for. If we don’t reject these people with every breath of our voice, we run the risk of such ideologies defining libertarianism in the minds of the general public. We should vehemently denounce them as the hypocrites they are and cut all ties to them.

But, I argue, doesn’t that discredit us as defenders of free choice/thought/association? I don’t want bigots to call themselves libertarians and claiming to be both is, of course, a contradiction in terms. But the moment we shove “them” aside and claim “they” have nothing to contribute to the ideology not only discredits our celebration of freedom, but we also miss the opportunity to grasp what small insight they may come up with. As for the realm of public opinion, people aren’t stupid and they’ll notice that a libertarian racist is a contradiction in terms. At the very least, they’ll start asking questions and isn’t that what we want people to do in the first place?

This article, more than any other, demands commentary. Should libertarians completely detach ourselves from hate and idiocy or do we recognize them as the inevitable result of a freedom-loving ideology?

PS. I sent this to Steve for his input and he had a few comments. I made some changes in respect to his criticism and am posting the rest for mass consumption.

Steve wrote,

“I never said they have *nothing* to contribute to our views. I think some do. But the gains are not worth the costs. Your argument above suggest that any negative effects on libertarians from inclusion are worth the potential small benefits that come from their possible contributions, however small. That's a very uneconomic way of thinking about it, isn't it? ;) Since when do we engage in behavior just because the benefits are positive if the costs are greater?”

“Sorry, but [the public] won't [ask questions]. It will confirm EVERYTHING they wrongly believe about us. For example, "Ah-ha! I told you they opposed minimum wage laws because they want to keep poor black folks down. Sure they said it would help, but now we know the real deal when we read about them defending the Confederacy." Same with gender issues, etc. To me, associating with racists absolutely guts our ability to distinguish ourselves from conservatives. For me, that's a very high value.”

PSS. Of course, since this is my article I get last word. When it comes to ideas I prefer to err on the side of optimism. One really good idea is worth thousands of bad ones because that one good one will stand for all time. As for public opinion, I can definitely imagine the scenario presented but the core problem here isn’t just the public…it’s the poor state of the mass media. But that’s really a separate discussion.


Chris said...

Hi Dave. Interesting topic you've raised here. From what I understand, you are asking whether libertarians should tolerate racism in fellow libertarians remarks. I would say that if a libertarian brought forth a MAJOR contribution to libertarian thought and then added, "Oh yeah, I hate the Jews, blacks, etc." then I would have to say that his/her *libertarian* insight should not be ignored by fellow libertarians, but all (or at least those who oppose his/her racism - which *should* be everyone) should say, "However great XYZ's insight into such-and-such was, I (we) thouroughly reject their racism and it is a disgrace that she felt this way.

However, if the contribution is less than profound (or as an economist would put it - if the costs outweighed the benefits) then I'd say it's best to ignore his contributions as you would any other cook or bigot. Furthermore, in my opinion, ALL libertarians should reject INSTITUIONALIZED racism. That is to say, no libertarian should hold the position that state-enforced racism is legitimate. For clearly, it is a violation of all libertarian theory that the state (a common good) should enforce the racist opinions of one person or group of individuals.

Well, that's my opinion. Like I said earlier, a very interesting question; and I think it does come down to the level of insight such a person provides; though personally I think the chances of that happening are very minimal if any. So mostly, such opinions should be rejected. And clearly anyone who supports institutional racism is not much of a libertarian to begin with.

David said...

Your argument is similar to Steve's in the sense that we shouldn't accept certain people into the libertarian ideology unless we think they can add more than they take away. (Steve is very suspicious that bigots can pull this off.)

But there's a core flaw in that reasoning: We can't do that. Not accurately. No one knows who will come up with the Next Great Idea and while we can make guesses and estimates, it's really easy for a "worthy" person to slip through the cracks because the only way to truly know if they were worth the cricitism is after they're dead.

Picking and choosing individuals are even more difficult when you bring up the question of the magnitude of costs and benefits. Obviously, you and I disagree on the costs of bigotry and the possible benefits of new ideas. How are we to determine, just between the two of us, who gets to "belong?"

Finally, there's a issue of legitmacy. I think libertarians gain a lot more credibility if we include as many people as possible in our ideology while recognizing we disagree of some of what they say. Debate, open minds and free choice are core components of libertarianism. Even as a private ideology/organization, if we pick and choose when to defend and celebrate liberty, it looks bad (and for good reason).

Chris said...

Well, I think I might have misunderstood your arguement then. I am not saying that we need to pick and choose who "gets into" libertarian ideology. All I am trying to say is that we make those decisions after something is written. So, if someone writes an article that relates to economic theory for example, but somewhere else writes something that is completely bigoted or racist then those ideas should be criticized by those who oppose those thoughts. This doesn't necessarily mean that we have to reject anything else they say related exclusively to libertarian thought. I hope that I can better understand the arguement that you are making. If not please elucidate.

Anonymous said...

I'm not poliitically savy, and I'm economically dense, but with that out of the way, I think that picking and choosing who to include is just another form of bigotry. It's another -ism.
Over the course of the last few months, ever since Michael Moore's new movie opened, conservatives have been saying distance Moore, Moore will hurt the campaign. Shouldn't people listen to what Moore says, listen to what the liberals say, listen to as many viewpoints as possible, and then make a decision?
As Bill Mahr said quite often, "I may disagree with what someone says, but I will defend until my dying day that person's right to say it."
I'm not talking about great ideas, or petty ideas, life and world changing ideas or simple domestic or personal ideas. I'm simply talking about the right to have those ideas, those beliefs. Because, "'[with] the first link a chain is formed. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.' The first time any man's freedom is trodden on we're all damaged."
If libertarians are truly inclusive, then be that. Inclusivity is different from wholesale agreement.

David said...

Alright Anonymous, I have a feeling who you are because you quoted both Bill Maher and Star Trek but I could be wrong considering there are (theoretically) many new people visiting this site thanks to the IHS seminar. (And your Star Trek quote, by the way, is one of my favorite. It is from the TNG episode, The Drumhead, an excellent libertarian episode, and was spoken by Jean-Luc Picard who was in turn quoting Judge Aaron Satie. If you didn't think I was a big dork before, I knew all that by heart.)

But when we talk about this we have to be careful. Both Bill Maher, Judge Satie and Captian Picard were talking about state power. (Bill Maher often makes that statement when he attacks laws or bills against flag-burning.)

Libertarians are an independent organization and, by virtue of our own emphasis of private property, we can exclude or include anyone we want. We don't have a sword to force people one way or the other. Again, I still think we SHOULD include bigots but my reasoning is slightly different from yours.

Erin said...

Actually, it was Voltare who said that 'Bill Maher' quote. Mr. Maher, might consider siting sources when something like that becomes ingrained and heavily associated with his ideology