Libertarianism, Liberalism

Libertarian Social Morality: Progressive, Conservative or Liberal?

Libertarians regularly argue about the relationship between their political commitments and their “moral views.” The disagreement seems to proceed by answers to two questions.

1. Do libertarian political commitments imply moral commitments?

2. If yes, which moral commitments?

Those who answer “No” to the first question are sometimes called “thin” libertarians, whereas those who answer “Yes” are said to affirm some form of “thick” libertarianism (Charles Johnson wrote perhaps the classic piece on the thick-thin distinction). Next libertarians debate about which moral views they should get thick with (pardon the pun).

I. Distinguish Domains of the Moral

I think the debate is obscured by a failure to delineate between different types of moral views. For instance, Steve and Sarah’s recent provocative piece protested both the practice of “slut-shaming” along with the merely moral view that it is wrong for women to have many sexual partners. Consider,

Borowski then slut shames women who engage in casual sex, off-handedly dismisses the possibility that a libertarian could be pro-choice, and spirals off into an unfocused critique of the luxury goods market. Every single one of these things that she criticizes women for doing should be seen not as causes for shame, but as complex choices that smart, thoughtful women can and do make, without destroying their lives in the process.

I’m not out to criticize Steve and Sarah, just to point out that the passage elides the distinction between a moral practice and a moral view. For instance, you might condemn the moral practice of slut-shaming while still holding the moral view that no one should have numerous sexual partners.

To follow P.F. Strawson, we might distinguish between two forms of morality: social morality and individual ideal. Individual ideas are personal views about the best, transcendent, holy, righteous and pure form of life. They can completely captivate an individual but they seldom play the public coordinating function of a social morality. A social morality is a system of rules that ground relations of accountability and moral responsibility. Recognized social-moral rules are the ground for practices of praise and blame that genuinely motivate behavior and is one of the foundations of social order as such. All societies have some form of social morality, even very primitive ones.

The distinction is subtler than I’ve indicated, but we can already see how it illuminates new conceptual space in the thick-thin debates. You might hold, for instance, that libertarian political commitments require a relatively progressive social morality but permit one to affirm conservative individual ideals. Or one might think that a full philosophical assessment of libertarianism should lead people to endorse both libertarianism and a comprehensive individual ideal like Objectivism, but that libertarianism does not dictate the form of a justified social morality. In this way, I can agree with Sarah and Steve that slut-shaming should not be part of the social morality of a free people (for one thing, as it is typically practiced, it treats men and women unequally) but I can also believe that libertarianism does not require us to think that sexual promiscuity is part of the true moral ideal. The relationship between moral truth and moral practice is complicated.

Ok, so in light of the social morality-individual ideal distinction, what shall we say about the thick-thin libertarianism debate? I now see five questions to ask:

1. Do libertarian political commitments imply social-moral commitments?

2. If so, which social-moral commitments?

3. Do libertarian political commitments imply commitments to individual ideals?

4. If so, which ideals?

5. If the answers to 2 and 4 conflict, how should we resolve the conflict?

I think libertarian political commitments do not entail particular individual ideals. I’m a thin libertarian in this regard. And I’m pleased by this fact. Given my public reason libertarianism, I’m elated by the fact that libertarianism does not require us to hold a single comprehensive view of the good. That would count against libertarianism, the true political view should be able to become the object of an overlapping consensus.

II. Libertarian Social Morality: Liberal, Not Progressive or Conservative

However, I do think libertarian political commitments imply limitations on the form of social morality. So I disagree with some conservative libertarians that a libertarian society must endorse traditional social moralities in order to maintain the thick civil associations critical to maintaining a stable, free society. But I also disagree with left-libertarians who think that a feminist social morality must undergird a free society in order to prevent state domination to creep into a society based on its toleration of patriarchal domination.

In fact, these are empirical claims that neither side has established. One reason they have not is due to a failure of most in the debate to distinguish between social morality and individual ideals. The relationship between libertarianism and individual ideals is a more philosophical matter, about how different beliefs hang together. But the relationship between libertarianism and social morality concerns more how political and moral practices fit together in the real-world. Since libertarians often elide the distinction, they think philosophical arguments about the relationship between libertarianism and individual ideals is enough to establish empirical claims about the relationship between libertarianism and social morality.

I think it’s quite hard to know in the abstract which social moralities best underpin libertarian political commitments. But I do think we can say something. Specifically, I think we have reason to believe that libertarian political commitments require a liberal social morality rather than a conservative or progressive one. A conservative social morality would morally sanction people who decided not to comply with conservative values, and a progressive social morality would sanction people who fail to comply with progressive values. In other words, the two social moralities are similar because they make your moral deviations everybody’s business.

I don’t think a free society can be stable if one group insists on sanctioning those who rationally and reasonably disagree with them. A free society is necessarily diverse, so to impose a conservative or progressive social morality will likely require authoritarian efforts because people will think themselves entitled to morally browbeat their free and equal fellows.

The best social morality for a free society is liberal, one that recognizes that much of our behavior is nobody else’s business. A free people will tend to sanction others who fail to respect others’ psychological and social boundaries and who needlessly violate personal privacy. A liberal social morality is akin to traffic law, where we need not see into others’ cars to coordinate and cooperate with them. A liberal social morality is therefore rather limited in scope but the rules are simple, strong and quickly enforced. Relatively few matters should be the object of general moral scrutiny, just as there are relatively few matters that should be the subject to coercive force.

III. Towards a “Liberal” Libertarianism

Debates about the relationship between libertarianism and morality should distinguish between different domains of the moral, specifically between social morality and individual ideals. Second, these debates would also do well to distinguish three forms of social morality: progressive, conservative and liberal. Progressive and conservative social moralities run the risk of authoritarianism, whereas a simpler, “mind your business” liberal social morality may better support libertarian political institutions.

  • I totally agree with the need to distinguish different domains of the moral, but I don’t think you even go far enough. I distinguish not only between personal and social, but between personal, social, and political, and probably between other domains as well. Between social and political there’s plenty of room if we allow it. Specifically, there are different levels of shame. There is the shame that comes from hearing someone voice their opinion that you are wrong. There is also the shame that comes from someone violating you physically or emotionally. While verbal dissent can slip into verbal abuse, the two can nevertheless be distinguished.

    A libertarian society would necessarily have to tolerate both shameful behavior and the acts of verbal shaming (not abuse) that often come as a response. It’s an irony we’re all familiar with that progressives can be so intolerant of intolerance. But a libertarian should be consistent: yes, even so-called “intolerance,” so long as it means nothing more than expressing disapproval, ought to be tolerated.

    Politically, then, the ethic that libertarians stress is simply lack of aggression: let people do as they please until they begin violating one another’s rights. Socially, however, there is room for spontaneous order. Most likely people will naturally come up with all kinds of rules governing their interactions with one another, and they will have the natural inclination to communicate those rules to one another. So long as none of these rules are enforced by coercion, I don’t see why this is not a libertarian society.

    • “Between social and political there’s plenty of room if we allow it. Specifically, there are different levels of shame. There is the shame that comes from hearing someone voice their opinion that you are wrong.”

      I’m a self-esteem researcher, so my perspective is psychological. Perhaps the terms being used are understood differently in moral philosophy, but here’s my take on the above quote.

      Perhaps I’m not understanding what you mean by shame, but if a person feels shame in hearing that their opinion is wrong, then I would say that person has a fragile sense of self-esteem. Specifically, the person’s self-esteem is too strongly associated with being “right” rather than on being rational (e.g., receptive to logic & facts, open to checking and correcting one’s beliefs). If we are indeed wrong about an idea, I don’t think we should necessarily feel shame about it. Indeed, I would suggest that after learning about our error, we feel better about ourselves in that we have a better cognitive correspondence with reality.

    • I agree that there are intervening levels of morality between society-wide (or law) and individual. For instance people often belong to clubs or associations of like-minded people which have their own rules; and some people belong to a number of such associations. But what about associations that go beyond the law? It seems to me that people should be able to opt out of the prevailing legal rules, so long as they are consenting adults and their actions affect no-one else adversely. Here is an example. In the UK it is a criminal offence to injure someone even if that person consents to the injury (though there are some designated exceptions for surgery, boxing and such like). But if people want to injure each other, why shouldn’t they be able to do so without fear of imprisonment? We had a case here two decades back in which people were put in prison for assault for engaging in sadomasochistic sex activities between consenting adults. The main details are here:

      Of course, if the law was properly liberal, it would say that consent makes it okay.

      Like Walter, I found it odd that you said: ‘There is the shame that comes from hearing someone voice their opinion that you are wrong.’ There could never be free and open discussion if people felt shame about being corrected. We would rarely learn anything.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Excellent post, Kevin.

    • Sean II

      I agree, and I think this piece really tends to show how far away even we are from knowing what a real libertarian order would look like. We’re like Moses and Aaron, conceptually barred from the promised land by habits hard to shed.

      To say “that’s his business, not mine” and actually mean it is a very difficult thing.

  • j r

    The problem with both the conservative and progressive conceptions of morality is that they start from a pre-defined world view. The conservative says that the nature of women is to resist any urges towards promiscuity, treat her sexuality like a prize, and only reward it to the one man willing to commit to her in a traditional monogamous relationship; therefore, the conservative attempts to use morality to steer women towards that end, shaming any woman he veers from the course.

    The progressive says, “bullshit! there is no nature to women and each woman is free to invent herself as she wishes without fear of judgment or retribution. The progressive attempts to use morality to justify whatever behavior an individual woman would choose and to censure anybody for trying to slut-shame that woman.

    As a liberal, I say that I don’t know what women, by their nature, are. Let them go out into the world and find out. Now, in truth, I do have some pre-existing opinions on what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior and that’s what guides me in making my individual moral judgments. I am, however, completely open to the idea that I am wrong and, therefore, I tread lightly.

    Morality does, and ought to, function as a marketplace. An individual woman should do whatever she wants with her body, so long as it doesn’t directly harm others. And others should be free to judge or not judge her based on her behavior. In turn, she is free to accept or reject those people’s judgments of her. And those people are simultaneously being judged by others. Judging is important, because it functions in the same manner as price does in an economic marketplace.

    The conservative, and perhaps the thick libertarian, wants to impose a permanent value on moral judgment. And the progressive wants to completely remove the notion of value or subvert it to some larger political cause. Neither of those approaches are appropriate for the same reason that price interventions are inappropriate in an economic marketplace.

    • Sean II

      I have to take issue with one part of your account: I’ve never seen any actual progressives who didn’t engage in back-handed slut shaming.

      As in, I know you can find some over-the-counter feminist/progressive arguments in favor of this or that or anything goes, but when it comes down to demonstrated preference, that’s all bait-and-switch. They turn out to be just as prude as any other type of busybody.

      They may call it “fighting patriarchal exploitation and rape culture” instead of “defending the feminine virtues of modesty and chastity”, but the net effect is similar, because…in the end they, too, usually end up criticizing other women for awarding their favor at insufficient price.

      I choke upon my own vomit to mention this, but the HBO series Girls is a great example of this hypocrisy. One of the characters – indeed, the most traditionally pretty and most hated of the main ensemble – has rather clearly been set up as a progressive slut shame. The story is not: “Behold, here is a hot young woman who stalks the sexual landscape in search of her next meal”. It’s always: “Pity this poor lass, who gives herself away for nothing” or “Curse this treacherous skank, whose license knows no bound of honor.”

      It’s as though they took the labor theory of value and applied to sex, so that there is no such thing as a mutually beneficial exchange between a the owner of a penis and the hireling of a vagina.

      In practice, it works out to something eerily like Christian sexual morality, where sex is always something being inflicted on a woman, whose chief imperative is to make sure the infliction never takes place outside of a supervised contract, nor at too cheap a price.

      I hasten to add that every progressive known to me personally bears this out. They might make an Imam or an orthodox Rabbi nervous with their exposed hair and provocative talk, but when actions are counted instead of words, most of them could visit a Catholic confessional without incident.

      • For many people, politics is a substitute for traditional religion.

        • Sean II

          Certainly I would say that describes the left (the right is still using actual religion, otherwise it would probably describe them too).

          A visit to some lefty precincts of the web does indeed reveal a tent revival atmosphere. I’m amazed at the number of comments on Alternet or HuffPo, sometimes piled hundreds high, that sound like updated versions of “Get back now SATAN!” or “Praise Jesus!” or “Hmmm, you know that’s right!”

          Except in the actual cases its more like: “Another atrocity in the war on women!” or “For the last time: people not profits!” or the “The Koch brothers went down to Georgia, looking for a vote to steal; they’re in a bind cause it’s tax hike time, and they’re willing to make a deal”, where the latter comment gets 927 likes in two hours.

          The tone is not that of an intellectual movement, but of a moral and sentimental one.

          • Sean II

            Sorry to self reply, but here – offered into evidence – is the top voted comment from Alternet’s story on Walmart’s disappointing mid-quarter earnings report:

            “Oh, boohoo Walmart-what did you think was going to happen? Sam’s brats killed hundreds upon hundreds of jobs when they quit buying all American made products. Guess they failed to learn that when you take away American’s jobs and send the jobs to China-eventually, Americans won’t be able to afford even the junk Walmart sells. All the greedy companies that sent our jobs overseas-it will suck to be you sooner or later as well. When you keep the 99% dirt poor-how the heck to you think you can keep your profits high when no one but the 1% have money to spend? Even the rich will only buy just so many boats, cars, homes, etc. Look at all the businesses starting to have much lower sales-how long can you last when none of the rich wants what you have to sell and the 99% no longer have the money to buy what you sell? Think the 1% will keep every business in the country afloat? Sure…dream on Alice. Welcome to what you greedy bastards created. Trust me, the 99% will enjoy watching the show-even if it takes 20 of us chipping in pennies to buy a bag of popcorn.”

          • Fallon

            Koch Bros. Good and evil.

            Funding IHS, support for academics and students- many more radical than they, (the libertarian parts of) Reason and CATO, and many philanthropic projects (e.g. in NYC). They sure know how to wear the white hats.

            Then there is the reptilian, Machiavellian, anti-market politics. Bush, Romney, central bank, Heritage Foundation, Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party… The list keeps growing. These Koch guys wear the black hats with such ease.

            So the religiously left is right for the wrong reasons in many cases.

        • Well, there is the phrase “political religion,” and let’s face it–in this day and age, modern conservatism and progressivism are nothing if not political religions.

          • good_in_theory

            Libertarianism, of course, is the one true faith…

          • Considering all the schisms we got, maybe…

          • shemsky

            It seems from your comments on this site that you believe that statism is the one true faith, to be imposed on all individuals.

    • To greatly condense this view I would say. “I just don’t know what is best for other people”. That, however does not mean that I cannot have an opinion or even some advice for someone whom I see entering into self destructive behavior. But It does mean that I don’t have the right to coerce them.

  • Thank you! This is what I am always thinking when I hear the arguments from either conservative or left libertarians.

  • ThaomasH

    “and a progressive social morality would sanction people who fail to comply with progressive values.”
    This sounds like something to avoid in principle, but I’m not aware of instances of failure to comply with progressive values leading to social sanctions. [Are we talking about social science departments fo elite universities?]
    I aslo echo the need to distinguish the social and political sphere; I think it’s the effort to jump too quickly from a personal morality to law that causes problems like DOMA.

    • j r

      If you want to see good examples of this sort of thing, spend some time on feminist blogs: Jezebel, Feministing, Pandagon, they’ll all do the trick. Granted, social sanction seems an imprecise term, because it’s virtual, but you’ll see the logic behind it, the “if you disagree with me about the wage gap or question my numbers on sexual assault then you must be a horrible misogynistic douche-bag who lives in his mother’s basement and can’t get laid because you have a tiny penis.”

      Another good example was that video going around at the time of the health care debate, the one with Susan Sarandon’s daughter and a bunch of other people saying that if someone objects to nationalized health care then you shouldn’t sleep with them.

      • ThaomasH

        Seems quite marginal, but I guess it does exist outside the MSM and respectable brogosphere.

      • Sean II

        Great. Another reason why Eva Amurri won’t call me.

    • Michael J. Green

      I haven’t been in a position to see it first hand, but there are plenty of videos of non-progressives trying to speak or document a progressive rally only to be shouted down, ejected, followed menacingly, etc.

      And while the Internet is its own crazy thing, I see people derided as racists or misogynists for having the wrong opinion or not being sufficiently offended at perceived racism/sexism. I’ve seen John Mackie called an asshole by numerous people, apparently because he doesn’t like PPACA. And then there’s the common refrain that most everything in the world is political, in which case holding the wrong opinion can mean political censure.

  • Kevin: I’m wondering if you’re familiar with Paul Kurtz’s distinction between interpersonal and intrapersonal morality. Kurtz’s distinction in his own words:

    “Morality is deeply rooted in the “common moral decencies” (these relate to moral behavior in society) and the “ethical excellences” (as they apply to a person’s own life)”

    This seems similar to your distinction, although Kurtz goes a step further to delineate specific “moral decencies” and “ethical excellences.”

  • I like this, but I’m not sure as an empirical matter that “liberal” values can be effectively based merely on a shared understanding of a conception of public reason, as opposed to a “liberal values heritage” which treats them as quasi-sacred, rooted in history and past communal sacrifices, etc. Which means that to be a liberal, you have to be a conservative.

  • CT

    Great post!
    As a ‘live and let live’ kinda guy, I’ve always believed that people should be able to live their lives as they please with a minimum of shaming. For example, I don’t personally think ‘sleeping around’ is a good idea for either men or women, but I see no reason why I should shame anyone for doing it. They’re not hurting anyone else. I mean, there are instances where I think shaming is very appropriate (discrimination based on race, language spoken, sexuality, etc. comes to mine), but I think for the most part libertarians (and others) should hold off on the shaming.
    As for your last few paragraphs, I’ll have to give that some thought. So far, I’ve thought if progressives and conservatives could be convinced that forcing (as opposed to just shaming) people to yield to their world views just leads to worse consequences, then there’d be no reason why the progs and cons couldn’t make good libertarians. But your arguments are compelling. Food for thought …

  • mercrono

    I like this post a lot, and I find this framework helpful. I do think it would be interesting to press harder on the boundary between social-morality judgments and individual-ideal judgments, especially because I’m the sort of person who often finds a “mind your business” response frustrating, even though I basically agree with the idea of a liberal social morality.

    Specifically, what is the boundary at which advocating a particular individual-ideal becomes improper social-morality advocacy, and is there a relevant difference between advocacy and sanctioning? Suppose I think promiscuous sex is dangerous to one’s health and emotional well-being.* Obviously I get to act on those beliefs myself. Presumably, I can express such views to those close to me and encourage them to act accordingly, in the same way and for the same reason that I would encourage good fitness and nutrition (because I care about the welfare of those close to me).

    But what about when that advocacy starts happening at a social level? Suppose I use my blog/column/television show, etc. to extol the virtues of sexual modesty and warn about the dangers of promiscuity. Does that constitute me not “minding my own business,” or am I still more like a fitness instructor speaking to a large audience (because I care about the welfare of those in my society)? What if I point to particular, high-profile examples of how promiscuity has damaged people’s lives, as a warning to avoid that sort of behavior? Would it be “slut-shaming” if I stated that particular people were engaging in destructive behavior, so long as I stayed respectful and provided “of course they have the right to do what they want” qualifiers?

    Basically, I wonder how much the concern about social-morality sanctioning really just boils down to concerns about tone and respect. I have a strong interest in preserving the ability of people to publicly argue “these particular beliefs/behaviors/practices, etc., are bad, hurt people and society, and we would all be better off if they didn’t happen!” I also think it’s ridiculous for public commenting to take the form of “what a slut,” where someone is condemned for supposedly immoral behavior without any reasoned explanation as to what the problem is. But is that basically just a desire for public argument to be better, or does it map onto the social morality/individual ideal distinction?

    *I don’t, by the way. I picked this example precisely because it wasn’t my view.

    • Well, obviously, the crucial determinant is what the facts are. In other words, is open sexuality truly bad for your health and emotional well-being, given present technology?

      If the answer is yes, then slut-shaming (in some form) is good public health policy. If the answer is no (as is, IMO, increasingly obvious) then slut-shaming is just organized cruelty.

      • I am not sure that is the question at all. It is not a person’s sexuality which concerns moat modern people but other lifestyle choice like having children with no fathers or absent fathers. This deprives the child of the benefits of having two parents. Perhaps this is an area where social stigma may be useful.

  • I think that one’s personal morality directly influences one’s social morality, if we’re to make such a distinction. For example, I consider myself something along the lines of an Aristotelian Egoist. As a result, I am bound to support at least some general socially liberal values. Egoism is necessarily pluralistic in nature. Would other personal moralities matter in this way? And in what order do most people rank them? What is most important, your social, personal or political commitments?

  • matt b

    This post reminds me of a fight in the libertarian blogosphere in the summer of 2011 when Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch- the chief badasses at Reason Magazine- book came out saying the increase in interracial marriage was a libertarian development libertarians should celebrate. In response David Gordon of the Mises Insitute said that those crazy kids had no idea what they were talking about. Libertarianism was all about the initiation of force. The NAP. That sort of thing. Of course many libertarians- and the majority of the influential ones (Friedman, Hayek, even Nozick)- didn’t subscribe to the NAP so that seems to be a problematic definition right there. Anyway, I think the core libertarian idea of live and let live is about a lot more than, you know, “Whether someone wants to read Voltaire of David Duke you can’t use force against them” but rather is based on a belief that human flourishing comes from the embrace of what Mill characterized as “expirements in living” and diversity and pluralism and the willingness to open one’s mind. A society that didn’t use force against anyone who wasn’t a buttoned up vanilla bore but systematically marginalized such people- Charles Murray libertarianism where private property owners would enforcie stifling, repressed right wing conformity and turn us all into Mitt Romneybots- might be libertarian in Gordon’s narrow sense but not in that broader one.

    • Sean II

      Although I think he’s wrong on several counts (poor white and black Americans tend to be very socially conservative in terms of their professed beliefs, so I have no idea why he thinks social conservatism can be a cure for what ails the trailer park and the p’jects), I still have to cut Murray some slack.

      Close study of or contact with poverty does strange things to a person, exactly in proportion to his or her sincerity in wanting to help the poor.

      At some point, you have to confront the fact that one of the biggest obstacles to helping the poor is…them. You also end up, quite against your will, noticing and then feeling guilty for noticing that they are so very often unlikable people: racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, ignorant, superstitious, listless, crude, selfish, deceptive (some of which is pardonable as a coping strategy of the powerless, some of which is just ‘fuck you, sucker’), menacingly vigorous at 14, physically decrepit at 32, and in the very worst cases, criminally violent between those two age milestones.

      The way to face up to it is this: ask yourself how you would feel if 15 actual poor people from Appalachia and 15 from West Baltimore set up DISQUS accounts and started commenting on this board. At first, we’d be all “Oh neat, a chance to practice a little BHL style social justice in conversation, plus the overall traffic seems to have doubled!.”

      Within hours, it’d be: “No, see, the question ‘should people drink sugared soda’ is different from the question ‘should we force them not to'”…”Sir, that word does not mean what you think it means”…”Okay, but you should try to accept the idea that the bible isn’t the only place to get moral teaching”…”Look, I’m sorry your uncle died of ______, but when it comes to deciding what the law should be for everyone we can’t just base that on one man’s experience, however painful”…”Please refrain from using that word here”…”As libertarians we don’t take banning lightly but”…”THERE ARE 27 COMMENTS AWAITING MODERATION”.

      Libertarians thick, thin, and BHL, all have to reckon with Murray and what he has brought to the table, because there is a very real question arising from: just what are we gonna do when these guys piss away their entire universal basic income at the casino on the first days of the month?

      If force is out, and shame is out (or just ineffective), what do we have to say on the matter?

      • matt b

        When Murray says they should be more socially conservative, I think he’s reffering to behavior so drink less, don’t have kids out of wedlock, delay gratification, pursue school and not beer and bar fights and so on and so forth. The funny thing is that the people who live in the way he describes as being essential to human flourishing are libeal Democrats in New England who aren’t particularly religious, are pro-choice, down with the gays and so on and so forth.
        There is some truth to your description but it really speaks to a lack of education. Since wealth and education typically go together you find much more reasonable views on social issues from rich people (even rich Republicans tend to be socially liberal). So I think the issue here is the failure of our education system to enlighten people coupled with the persistence of religion.
        Yeah I hear you. It’s hard to change hardened behavior that has been there for generations and generations. If your dad was a drunk bar fighter what are the chances that you will be? I think libertarians are for too hard on people in terms of denying how powerful the influence of family and friends are and the challenge of breaking out of that when everyone around is doing it and there’s no positive force guiding you in the right direction.

        • Sean II

          The cynicism I’m talking about makes one question whether any positive force will do the trick, which I suppose still leaves the door open to negative forces like shaming.

          I must confess I’ve completely given up any hope that education – even freed market education, which we’re not about to get, and which in any case would come last to the places and people I’m worried about – is capable of changing things.

          I find Murray very convincing when he speaks of social stratification by cognitive ability. In fact, I think it’s all but irresponsible for anyone to deny that is happening now, more or less as he warned it would 20 years ago. I also find him very persuasive when it comes to the modest returns we should expect in the bottom quintile, from even the best educational inputs

          Libertarians have to face the possibility that some part of the world we’re describing will probably resemble “Hamsterdam” from Season 3 of The Wire, while BHL Libertarians have to face the added possibility that other parts will continue to resemble the McCulloh Homes housing project from Seasons 1 and 2.

          I’m not saying we have to put that one page one of our brochure, but I do think it’s bound to come up in conversation somewhere between today and year one of the libertopian paradise.

          • matt b

            Sean Sean Sean. You need to read less Murray and more Friedman and shine bright with optimism 🙂
            So many of our problems are the product of government intervention. The drug war has ruined the inner cities for example. For a long time- though I think there has been some improvement- welfare programs created a set of conditions which breeded dependency and undermined families. The schools are terrible and function as prisons for many. Occupational licensing and other regulation reduce opportunity and post-secondary education subsidies lead to people going to university when they should be entering the trades. This causes massive social distortions. But policy can be fixed and it can lead to better social conditions and therefore better behavior. Imagine the black kid who is in prison because of pot posession right now in libertopia. He probably wouldn’t even get into selling drugs and he would be excited about school because a competitive free market education system would lead to him being able to pursue what he’s interested in. Lower taxes and less regulation would mean more jobs and so on and so forth.
            Ultimately, I think many of the problems lie with the government and not with people. Yes change will be slow even with the most optimal policies imagineable (as you note we are a long way off from getting those policies) But if we can bring about neccesary policy change then we can at least set people on the right path.

          • Sean II

            Naturally, I brought those very ideas with me when I first made contact, and suffered mightily as they were worn down by repeated clashes with the facts.

            Take the schools, for example. It’s easy to sit here and talk about how reform is going to do X, Y, and Z, and probably much of that is true. It’s even easier to hate on teacher’s unions as public choice villains straight from central casting. The trouble is, when you actually go into an inner city school, it takes about two hours before you realize the kids themselves are the problem, or at least they are a major limiting factor working against any potential improvement, whether it comes from above or below.

            So sure, next you think: well maybe these are the kids who are meant to be doing vocational stuff, metal shop, etc. But holy shit, how’s that supposed work exactly, in a residentially segregated country where white poverty is rural and diffuse while black poverty is concentrated and urban?

            What are we gonna do, have a bunch of small town white schools where kids of various levels follow a variety of different tracks, but right in the midst of our major cities, we’re going to have these massive edu-camps where hundreds of thousands of black kids are told not to bother with college prep, but merely to focus on soldering circuit boards and cutting hair?

            That sort of thing is obviously intolerable if it’s a product of state controlled testing and tracking…but I submit it would be found almost equally revolting to many libertarians if it emerged from a genuinely spontaneous order.

          • matt b

            Okay but think about it. Your brother is in jail because the feds busted him for pot. Your dad is in jail for selling some. Your teacher does not give a crap about you. There is a macho culture that says reading is for pussies. Take all of that and it’s no surprise that when you meet these kids that show little appetite for learning. If you took some upper middle income kid and put him in that environment he would probably come off the same way after a few months of years in that shitty world.

            I don’t see what you find objectionable. You would have vouchers allowing kids to go to school of their choice and eventually, over time, you would see distinct strenghts and weaknesses. That would lead to people, in high school, spending most of their time on developing their strenghts and then post-secondary they go where the demand for their strengths is. Black kids would have an opportunity to be whatever their talents indicated they could be just like white and Asian and Jewish kids.

          • Sean II

            “…kids would have an opportunity to be whatever their talents indicated they could be…”

            That’s what I’m afraid of, but I really do hope you’re right and I’m wrong. In the meantime we must at least consider the possibility that removing the harms of statism will yet fail to solve certain problems, including that of conspicuous racial inequality.

            If the bottom 10% in the free market economy of our future dreams ends up being 60% black (well out of proportion to a 12% share of the total population) we’ve got a problem. That problem gets even more complicated if the bottom 10% also happens to be 0% asian or jewish, because at some point it just becomes too obviously absurd to go on blaming evil Republican rednecks for it all. The bulkheads of credibility are already strained, as progressives persist in trying to explain everything in terms of white privilege, where “white” is a weirdly elastic term that ends up including everyone who can now be called privileged: whites, asians, jews, hispanics, gay people, statistically inconvenient black sub-categories, etc.

            The libertarian account of ongoing racial inequality is sharp and compelling, but it is not exhaustive. The drug war, the education monopoly, the labor market mischief created by minimum wages and occupational licensing schemes…these things can explain a lot, but not everything.

            At some point, we have to deal with whatever they don’t explain.

          • matt b

            What are you suggesting they don’t explain though? Blacks are inherently intellectually inferior?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, there is also the possibility of cultural pathology. If you are a black kid getting good grades in school, you are “acting white,” and (somehow) betraying your “blackness.”

          • Sean II

            The parsimonious, empirical thing to say is that there’s a big gap in some important categories of group performance, including cognitive measures like IQ, ITBS, SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.

            The scientific response is to ask why, and lay out all the possibilities. All the possibilites means…all of the possibilities. We don’t get to say “Definitely we should prefer this one because it would be the least upsetting”, or “Oh, but not this one because it’s so unpleasant”. We don’t get to say “Hey, let’s have morality narrow the range of options before science even gets a look at them.” That would be crazy irresponsible when there’s so much at stake.

            Imagine if there was a disease on the loose, and one of its effects was to substantially limit the human flourishing of millions of people. And imagine there is prima facie evidence (though not proof) that the disease co-occurs strongly with red hair.

            Are we going to say “Okay, let’s get to the bottom of this epidemic. We must work to identify its cause. We must find out if it is viral, bacterial, chemical, environmental, congenital, behavioral, or post-traumatic. The history department would strongly prefer a post-traumatic explanation, so let’s make sure we study that first. If it doesn’t work out, the political science and sociology departments have agreed not to denounce us if we posit a behavioral origin, although they’ve advised us to proceed very carefully on that.”

            “Finally – and this is most important – under no circumstances are we to consider a genetic origin for the disease. Genetic explanations have been ruled out for moral and political reasons. No one should draw undue attention to, or pursue any line of inquiry based on, the co-occurrence of this disease with red hair. As you all know, red hair is a recessive genetic trait, and any public discussion of that fact is bound to invite genetic explanations, which we cannot afford and will not tolerate.”

            If such a thing happened, you’d rightly say it was the very height of scientific negligence. You’d say that any scientist who agreed to work on those terms was a sell-out hack. You’d say that promising NEVER to find a genetic link is, in its own way, just as bad as what the Nazi “scientists” did when they promised ALWAYS to find a racial cause or link at the root of everything.

            My point is that severe cognitive limitations of the kind reflected by a measured IQ of 80, are a serious threat to human flourishing, and a major risk factor for poverty, morbidity, mortality, psychopathology, and nearly every terrible thing you can think of, with the notable exception of reading and being troubled by Rawls (a disease which seems to selectively strike people at or above 115 IQ points).

            The question is: are we going to study the problem, or are we not?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            At the risk of being called nasty names for even considering this possibility, I agree with you. All theories should be investigated, even those we would prefer not to be true.

          • Sean II

            Also, it’s important to remember that our preference may suddenly change.

            A “culture of poverty” theory sounds good today because it hurts fewer feelings in the moment, but it’s also incredibly dismal and depressing, because it points the way to no particular remedy.

            A “cognitive stratification with racial co-occurrence” theory a’la Murray hits the ear as something bracing and horrible right now, but that theory comes from a part of science – genetics – which is actually and very rapidly advancing, and which may therefore produce some therapy that really works.

            On that day, I predict an abrupt shift from “you can’t talk about X” to “of course we’ve long known X, but refrained from saying too much about it until CogNatax came on the market because there wasn’t much point…”

          • Sergio Méndez

            Let me resume this conversation, using the same rethorical means you used in one of your interventions:

            Sean; “The scientific response is to ask why, and lay out all the possibilities. All the possibilites means…all of the possibilitie […] Imagine if there was a disease on the loose, and one of its effects was
            to substantially limit the human flourishing of millions of people. And
            imagine there is prima facie evidence (though not proof) that the disease co-occurs strongly with red hair.” Meaning: ” Yeah, race is the real issue, determining genetically things like IQ bla bla bla bla”

            Mark:”At the risk of being called nasty names for even considering this
            possibility, I agree with you. All theories should be investigated, even
            those we would strongly prefer to be false” Meanning: “Of course is the race issue, but our PC liberal culture would not allow us to see it, bla bla bla”

          • Sean II

            That is not a fair summary, neither of what I said, nor of what I meant. It’s even less fair to Mark.

            Usually I go out of my way to respond in detail to any comment, but I really don’t know what to say here. You’re overall message seems to be “anyone who touches this issue in any way is getting sorted into a category, and that’s the end of that.” In my case the category seems to include both “racist” and “guy who writes really cliche comments”, which I must admit makes for a pretty serious combined insult.

            Is that all you intended, or did you have some other argument to make?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I echo Sean, perhaps less politley. What the hell is your point? My comment meant exactly what it said. Your “elaboration” is unwarranted, misleading and unfair. Do you need help with the English language?

          • matt b

            True but I think that, sadly, this cultural pathology exists far beyond black culture. I have a cousin who is attending university in the southern U.S. and he is just apalled by the pervasive anti-intellectualism. He says people who read are reffered to as “fags” and just generally mocked. Look at the anti-intellectualism in our politics with the Palins and Perrys and Bushes of the world. Look at the widespread attacks on the president for not being a “real American” and the general disparagement of “eggheads.” Even Romney, an Ivy educated achievement addict who sips information instead of drinks, attacked him for spending too much time in “elite schools.” So this is just an issue that needs to be addressed in a big way across multiple dimensions.

          • Sean II

            Matt – one small quibble there:

            When Romney (or even Perry fot that matter) takes a swipe at “elite” institutions, what they’re really saying is “so-called elite” institutions.

            Neither Romney nor Perry despises Yale law school while actually believing that it’s a bastion of learning. They despise Yale law school because they believe it’s a palace of error disguised as a bastion of learning.

            So, much as I don’t like them two dudes, you cannot validly cite them as examples of anti-intellectualism, anymore than you could cite Liz Warren’s critique of Bain capital as being anti-success in the general case. The thesis is not “Bain capital = success, thus down with success”. The thesis is “Bain capital is not a genuine example of what we should call success.”

            It’s question begging to assume that Yale bashers, for example, are attacking what they themselves believe to be a authentic source of intellectual experience. No, no, no, they are attacking it precisely because they think it’s not authentic.


            Now, there’s a sense in which most of the population is anti-intellectual most of the time. This can be ascertained by asking any teenage or elementary school genius “how’s that big brain working out for you, socially?”

            But if you’re honest, you’ll notice that’s true even at top colleges as well. Most of the people there are hungry for status and position. They are not hungry for knowledge. A genuine, no-joke smart person is just as much an oddball at Duke as he or she is in the stands at Daytona 500.

            What happens in the common room of a Harvard dorm may sound like intellectual discussion, but if you have the proper translator, it boils down to something like this:

            Sensitive Guy: “I think T.S. Eliot would agree that blah, blah, blah… [ultimately meaning ‘you should have sex with me tonight’].”

            Earnest Girl: “How interesting! So what you’re saying is, when the author and critic are one and the same, it’s not necessary to worry about text because in any case blah, blah, blah [yes, we are going to have awkward intercourse 67 minutes from now].”

            Personally – and I grant you this is a matter of taste – I prefer the in-person company of non-intellectuals, when the alternative is (and it usually is) the company of pseudo-intellectual middle-brow bullshit artists who say things like “what’s really needed at this moment is a national conversation around civic engagement centered on issues like [insert leftover stew of talking points from recent Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman columns].”

            The point is: I don’t consider that truly intellectual, so when I come out as anti-that, I am not coming out at as anti-intellectual, but only anti-whatever that is.

          • matt b

            I can no longer read your posts in rooms full of people. The Senitive Guy- Earnest Girl exchange was pure hilarity and people were like “What’s so funny?” Is there really that many pseudo-intellectuals though?

          • Sean II

            Well, the poseurs are always going to outnumber the genuine masters when it comes to anything that’s difficult and demanding.

            If you’re talking about political theory, philosophy, and the like, it seems everyone (with an interest in the subject) is some sort of phony before they reach adulthood.

            I mean, there’s such a thing as a child math genius, or music prodigy, or chess grandmaster, but who ever heard of, say, an eleven year ethics wiz? You never see a wunderkind introduced on Jimmy Kimmel as “the Bobby Fisher of epistemology”.

            Even people who are well on their way to becoming the real deal are bound to pass through a period of totally obnoxious and arrogant fakery. And for most, I’m sure that “please-god-don’t-let-anyone-read-the-utter-crap-I-wrote-back-then” period coincides with a phase in life where everything is being harnessed to the sexual imperative, and where the sexual imperative is corrupting everything that can’t be harnessed.

          • matt b

            I love that you find a way to mention Jimmy Kimmel on this site and I absolutely agree with all your points. There’s nothing more annoying than the kid who thinks he’s “deep” because he knows a few Sartre quotes.

        • I don’t think education is nearly the panacea you make it out to be. My own experience as a High School teacher showed me that the little ner’ do wells, could quote back at you all the self help, and politically correct stuff they had been indoctrinated in for years. But it had no bearing on their behavior.

  • matt b

    A question for the commentators by way of a story: I have a friend who lived in rural Alberta. It’s Canada’s version of the Deep South. Everybody around her was super religious. The electoral district which encompassed her area elected a guy who claimed that homosexuality should never have been legalized in Canada. Her parents said there was only one book anybody needed to read. Yes you guessed it: the Bible. She was alienated and depressed. One day she met a guy who had moved there from Toronto (it’s our NY for those of you who don’t know) He was an atheist like her and was into art and music and so on and so forth. They started hanging out. Her parents hated him. Said he was “corrupting” her. They said she could not see him and that if she continued to she would be forced to move out. She had no money so this was not an option. So she saw him at her house when her parents went out and after school before they got home from work. When I talked with a libertarian about this asking if these type of situations should concern us he said no. No force had been initiated and if anyone was acting wrongly it was my friend since she agreed to stop seeing the guy as a condition of living there/accepting money for food and stuff and broke that commitment thus violating her parents property rights. What do we make of this?

    • We would conclude that a society without direct violations of the NAP could still be quite oppressive. Conservative “libertarians” have great difficulty with this, as it forces them to run cover for social attitudes (sexism, racism, etc.) that reinforce the notion that some people are more important than others — a crucial concept that also reinforces subservient and authoritarian views about government. They undermine the whole project for a free society by promoting a culture of hierarchy.

  • Sean II


    One thing that strikes me as a potentially interesting follow-up to this would be to find out how present-day libertarians (i.e., the pitifully small and not in any sense representative sample that is us) deal with these questions in present-day life.

    I’m willing to bet on two things:

    1) Most of us overwhelmingly follow a conservative social morality in real life. I would be very surprised if the people who post, comment, and read this board weren’t way underrepresented when it comes to participation in libertine activities like: regular pot smoking, recreational gambling, social binge drinking, casual or anonymous sex, open relationships, lying and cheating in personal relationships or at work. I’ll bet we don’t even evade or avoid taxes as much as our conservative or progressive friends! Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure we’d be overrepresented when it comes to: timely payment of debts and bills, savings and delayed consumption, charitable giving of time and money, self-restraint vis-a-vis residential noise and nuisance, intake of dietary fiber, staying of the old man’s lawn*, and really just everything that has anything to do with being a full-tilt king-sized square, daddy-o.

    2) Tolerant-sounding talk aside, most of us effectively shun people who do not follow our example as described above. And if shunning isn’t a form of shaming, well, isn’t it pretty damn close?

    So your post throws down a normative challenge for libertarians, urging them to adopt a liberal social morality and all that good stuff. But I think it’s interesting to consider what we do now – which seems to be: not that – and to ask: what are the chances we are really going to answer your summons down the road.

    * Of course I realize that “staying of the old man’s lawn” is a thin libertarian value, upon which even David Gordon would insist. Thus, no one need point that out to me.

  • While we can make a distinction between individual and social ideals, I’m not sure that these distinctions can endure for long. It seems that over time, the two will move toward harmony — where the expected individual behavior is consistent with the types of social enforcement that occur.

    To continue your slut-shaming example, we can observe that ~50 yrs ago, the paradigm was widespread acceptance of slut-shaming coupled with an individual ideal of female sexual restraint. Rejection of slut-shaming is relatively new and not by any means universal. Over time, we would expect this gap to narrow — either by a resurgence of slut-shaming or by a decline in the notion of female sexual restraint as a virtue. I think the latter is far more likely.

    Given that, it stands to reason that since the thick virtues which undergird libertarianism require a rejection of slut-shaming, and that since a long-term commitment to such virtues will erode the notion of chaste womanhood, we could argue that chaste womanhood is incompatible with a free society. Over the long term, therefore, socially conservative libertarians will be revealed as being confused about the nature of a free society.

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