Cultural Freedom

Kevin Michael Grace, who must have time on his hands, reminds me of a rant I published in the comments section of an ill-conceived article he wrote three years ago criticizing Reason for covering culture as if it has something to do with freedom. You might need to suffer through it for context. Anyway, I had forgotten about these comments, and I would like to re-associate myself with them.

Will Wilkinson — Jan. 24, 04 at 05:23 AM

Look…. Freedom from state coercion is just one, very limited, notion of freedom. It's the strictly political notion, and Reason has had the good sense to become more than a merely political magazine.

There is also a cultural notion of freedom that is not identical with political freedom and is deeply important to people. If we lived in a libertarian wonderland of minimal government, yet where social norms were so stringent that any woman who dared aspire to a career, or any man who dared love another man, or anyone who dared to deny God, would be faced with ferocious social ostracism, isolation, and exclusion, then we would have to say that all people in our society are not free in a very morally deep sense.

Coercion is just an extreme among the various forms of psychological manipulation to produce conformity. That these other forms are not a strictly political matter does not make them irrelevant to our freedom to discover for ourselves the best kind of life, given who we are, and does not necessarily make them less morally objectionable.

People who help open up avenues of identity and self-expression do expand the scope of our freedom, whether or not these avenues are worth exploring. I do not approve of people using their political freedom to publicly promote Nazi ideals, say, but I value anyone who helps to make this possible, because it also makes much that is good possible. Similarly, I do not necessarily approve of people who use their cultural freedom to spiral into dissolution, but those who open they way also open other ways well worth traveling.

So stop being a scold. Get over your pinched and neurotically ideological notion of freedom, and start paying attention to the further freedoms that matter much to people actually trying to live their own singular lives.

No, Dennis Rodman is not a worthy role model. Nor is a man, such as Thomas Jefferson, who was so irresponsibly prodigal that he allowed his self-imposed financial ruin to override his acknowledged moral duty to release his slaves from bondage. Yet despite a flaw far deeper and more grievous than any Dennis Rodman could conceive in his fevered dreams, we can see fit to give him his due.

Lord knows it feels so good to be so right about so much. But instead of rote, ham-handed, moralizing ideology why not try a bit of actual moral discernment, instead? I think you'll find it quite suitable for adults.

I was like a whole different person three years ago. A whole different person I agree with!

Make that Two Cheers for PC

I recommend to you Steve Horwitz's lucid post on anti-racism and libertarianism. A choice excerpt:

What I am interested in is the claim that those who stand in opposition to racism are being accused of being susceptible to using the state to somehow enforce that set of beliefs. First, as Roderick Long argued a few years ago in his “One Cheer for Political Correctness” essay, there's nothing inherently unlibertarian about recognizing the existence of structural racism/sexism etc. nor about standing up and loudly opposing it through non-coercive means. Will Wilkinson offers a different version of a similar theme in the context of the Paul newsletters. Second, throughout the long history of the West and the rest of the world, those who believe in the fundamental inequality of the races and/or believe that “like should stay with like” have been far more willing to use the state to enforce those views than those who have opposed them have.

[…]
Yes, legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 involved some interference with private property and the right of association, but it also did away with a great deal of state-sponsored discrimination and was, in my view, a net gain for liberty. In the longer run, it seems quite clear that classical liberalism/libertarianism has sided with the opponents of racism and that those who viewed the races as unequal were much more likely to use the state to enforce that view than were those who saw the races as equal. To suggest that anti-racism libertarians are somehow secret statists because opposition to racism must necessarily lead to state enforcement of those views is both a distortion of the actual arguments people like me have made and flies in the face of a long history of libertarians being both anti-racist and anti-state.

This is our heritage as classical liberals, and it long predates the Old Right of the early/mid 20th century, with its very mixed record on race/ethnicity issues, as a source of inspiration for not just the overall spirit of libertarianism, but its perspective on race in particular.

Right on.  If you haven't, please do read Roderick Long's smart essay on political correctness. In my long experience among conservatives and libertarians, one very often encounters a kind of smug, thoughtless anti-PC or counter-PC of the kind Long ably describes. The thing to keep in mind here is that most PC episodes mocked and derided by the right are not state impositions. They are generally episodes of the voluntary social enforcement of relatively newly established moral/cultural norms. Sometimes this process squelches or chills honest discussion and inquiry. I feel that way about the Larry Summers flap. But such mechanisms of indignation and shaming are precisely how societies coordinate on and defend norms of civilization without resorting to force.

Counter-PC attitudes often seem to me to be really expressions of resentment that a new more egalitarian norm has displaced the old racist or sexist norm, which is why devil-may-care un-PC pronouncements about race and  gender often really are just thinly veiled expressions of racism and sexism.  Anti-PC types folks often cast themselves as especially “brave” for being willing to speak the truth as they see it. But this is often nothing more than the imagined boldness of behaving indecently among decent people. If you really do believe in the equal freedom and dignity of people, you tend to act like it, and if not, not.

I think the really ironic thing is that it is only when it comes to concerted opprobrium aimed against racism, sexism, etc. do many anti-PC types seem to recognize the possibility that non-coercive collective attitudes can be stifling to a sense of independence and the exercise of autonomy.

Bloggingheads TV with Douglas Massey

Speaking of structural barriers to the exercise of liberty, here I am talking with Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey about his book Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System. If you think serious racial discrimination has dried up these days, try Chapter 3: “Reworking the Color Line.” It's full of evidence of continuing labor market and housing discrimination, and is one of the the most depressing things I've read in a while.  I disagree with a good bit of what Massey takes to be the upshot of all this in his book, but I was glad we were able to find so much to agree about it in our chat.

Just Sitting Here With My Gay Poodle and Ludwig von Mises' Politics

From reason comments, I found this pretty funny:

Cosmotarianism: Parking Vespas in the handicap spot at Trader Joe's since 1996. Take that, police state!

That said, this picture is sexist; I deplore it. And I bet Ludwig von Mises had a Vespa!

[Liberal] thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.

Classical liberalism, as Mises and I understand it, just is a cosmopolitan doctrine.

Ron Paul: Good for "the Blacks"?

I'm more than a bit baffled by this idea:

Despite the fact that Ron Paul, through his profitable, base-building newsletters, has actively spread and reinforced racist ideas, the really important thing here is that an end to the war on drugs would do more good for African American men than anything else. And since Ron Paul would, if elected president of the United States, end the drug war, anyone concerned for the welfare of African American men really ought to be in his corner, whether or not he has cultivated financial and political support through racist agitprop.

One obvious difficulty with this line of reasoning is that Ron Paul will never be elected President of the United States, and has about as much chance of ending the drug war as I do. He is little more than a symbol for a set of ideas—ideas his complicity with racism has tainted in many people's minds, whose prospects he may have damaged. I want to end the war on drugs, therefore I'd rather people not associate that idea with Ron Paul.

One of the embarrassments of the American libertarian movement is its failure to sufficiently acknowledge how collective bias against blacks, women, gays, immigrants etc. deprives blacks, women, gays, immigrants, etc. of their freedom. To my mind, serious forms of structural discrimination are much worse for liberty than certain kinds of coercion. Libertarians make themselves look ridiculous when they claim that everyone is fully and equally free as long as no one is coercing anyone. Now, this isn't obvious. At least it wasn't to me. It took me a good while to come around to this view—to see just how much structural bias does deprive people of their freedom or of the value of their freedom. But I am embarrassed that it took me as long as it did.

Here's where I'm coming from philosophically. I am no Rothbardian or Randian. I do not understand the argument that concludes in the categorical prohibition of all coercion, but which permits some other things far more harmful to the pursuit of happiness than most ticky-tack government regulation. I agree with some aspects of the 19th century criticism of classical liberal freedom as “merely formal.” I believe that the liberty most worth caring about is positive liberty—the ability effectively to enact one's plans, to achieve ones ends. In my judgment, a regime of strong negative rights is the best guarantee of positive liberty. Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited. But this is really an empirical question about what really does maximize individuals' chances of formulating and realizing meaningful projects and lives.

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it. Maybe I'll get into the complexities of that question some other time. What I am not ambivalent about is that racism and sexism, etc. deprive many millions of Americans of the full value of their freedom. Insofar as Ron Paul's racist newsletters propped up and encouraged racist norms, he has actually helped cultivate a cultural climate hostile to the prospects of “the blacks”, whether or not he would end the drug war in the miraculous event of his presidency.

In my opinion, it is the responsibility of decent people concerned with liberty to at least denounce, if not actively work to tear down, the racist beliefs and norms that enable liberty-killing structural discrimination. If you don't think ending discrimination is the government's job–that this is the sort of thing that should be done by persuasion, not force—then you should take this responsibility extra seriously. It's your job to persuade. If you think the government should do nothing but stay out of the way, but you are indifferent to racism and people who publish racist newsletters for financial and political gain, then it is not unreasonable to conclude either that you don't really care about other people's liberty, or think racism has nothing to do with it. In either case, you would be wrong.

Pinker on the Moral Sense

Nice overview. But I found the ending part on why the Haidt calibration view doesn't imply relativism a bit shady—a bit Straussian even!

Pinker struck me as arguing that there are real external facts about human flourishing that help underpin the authority of the harm and reciprocity dimensions of the moral sense, whereas the new science of morality helps us to see that we are subject to all sorts of “illusions” when it comes to the authority, in-group, and purity dimensions.

Now, I agree about a trillion percent with what I imagine Pinker is going for here: improving real human well-being by establishing the cultural dominance of a distinctively liberal calibration of the moral sense. That is, in fact, the ticket. But I simply don't see how this stands as an adequate reply to someone who says that it is better that millions suffer and/or die for the greater glory of the tribe, or the Prophet, or to prevent the defilement of the blood of the Motherland. Yes, it is an objective fact of the world that if the well-being of each is our aim, then liberal morality, and its concomitant institutions, such as the extended order of market cooperation, are the necessary means. But, tragically, we do not all share this aim.

Must we? From the perspective of morality per se and not just from the perspective of one among many moralities? Is human flourishing of overriding importance–does it get greater weight than alternatives—because of it's very nature. Or are those of us with an already liberal moral sense simply willing to go to the mat for the idea? To my mind, Haidt's views do leave us with relativism. And the obviously correct thing to do is to fight and win a global culture war for a liberal morality. The ongoing fight against liberal morality is sometimes so savage because, well, because the people fighting it are not liberals for one thing, but also because the advantages of liberalism—greater wealth, better health, longer lives, more deeply satisfying individuation, etc.—are so attractive, so enticing, and therefore so dangerous to those whose sense of meaning is bound up in an illiberal calibration of the moral sense.

Why not just say that a more thoroughly liberal calibration of the moral sense will deliver a huge list of incredibly attractive goods for everyone in the world, and leave it at that? If some can't be persuaded to care about those goods, then their kids can be. And their happy, health, wealthy, long-lived kids will little lament the loss of their backwards ancestral codes.

My unpublished essay on Haidt and politics, here.

Ron Paul Debacle Must Reads

Brink Lindsey:

In the twentieth century, alas, American liberalism was heavily influenced by the socialist dream of supplanting markets with central planning and top-down control. That confusion begat confusion in response — namely, an antistatist movement heavily influenced by authoritarian resentment of liberal cultural values. Paul’s illiberal libertarianism is a particularly unattractive variant of this kind of “fusionism.”

With the collapse of socialism, however, American liberals have begun rediscovering the value of market competition. By my lights, many of them still have a long, long way to go. But encouraging that process – making the case that economic liberalization is of a piece with overall social liberalization — is the only way forward for those of us concerned about overweening state power. In this project, people whose values and habits of mind are deeply hostile to liberal modernity are not our allies.

Tim Lee:

Rockwell and his associates have been known to lionize dictators, belittling Rosa Parks (”While Jim Crow was abominable, I find the staged events of modern American ‘history’ [i.e. Parks’ sit-in] even more disturbing.”), endorse bigotry (”Most “bigotry” is the act of noticing the truth. Blacks are genetically intellectually inferior, always have been, always will be.”), celebrate the death of American soldiers, and endorse the stoning of homosexuals. In short, they are libertarians only in the narrowest sense of the term, and non-hateful libertarians rightfully want nothing to do with them.

One of the telling things about the Lew Rockwell crowd is that when their outrageous views are criticized, they almost never respond with a substantive defense of those views, much less an apology. No, instead we get charming responses like “Most of Palmer’s problem is that he is homosexual. He’s certainly not gay, a preposterous word to use for such a disease-ridden lifestyle.” We see the same pattern with Paul’s newsletters. They have no interest in either apologizing for or distancing themselves from the ugly sentiments in those newsletters, which no one disputes were genuine. Instead, they viciously attack the people who unearthed them as smear artists, as though it’s somehow a smear to reprint and quote from articles that were originally sent out under your own name.

While I knew that the Rockwellians were big Paul boosters, I did not realize the depth of the ties between Paul and the Mises Institute. If I had, I think I would have been more cautious about supporting the guy. They’re a blight on the libertarian movement, and anything that raises their profile is bound to be a long-term negative for liberty.

[Update: Also, Jacob Levy.]

The Shame of Ron Paul

It now seems quite clear to me that Ron Paul has for years used racism, among other vicious sentiments, to build financial and political support.

I've been pretty negative about Paul from the start, attracted only to his antiwar stance, since I find his old right brand of nationalist, populist anti-statism pretty repellent and at odds with the cause of human liberty. I didn't know about the newsletters, but I'm not that surprised by them. I knew that he was close to Lew Rockwell, who many people speculate wrote many of Paul's most shameful newsletters, and I knew Rockwell's reputation as a racist and homophobe. And the syndrome of positions Paul has staked on immigration, sovereignty, and constitution idolatry is in my experience often correlated with racist sentiments of exactly the kind on display in the newsletters.

To my mind, the people who are trying to salvage something of Paul's reputation are just making themselves look bad. No matter how much money, time, and devotion you've given to someone, sometimes the only right thing to do is spit on the ground and walk away, hurting. If it wasn't before, it is now clear that this just isn't a man who deserves decent people's support.

I had hoped Paul would do more good than harm for libertarianism, inspiring lots of college kids to get interested in the ideas of liberty. But now I'm pretty certain that he's done a lot of harm, causing many people to associate libertarianism with racist cranks. I think it's pretty important then to publicize the fact that there are genuinely liberal versions of libertarianism out there. The young people who got interested in libertarian ideas through Paul need to be able to find Cato, Reason, the IHS, and other places where one can learn about classical liberalism, which isn't about keeping the Mexicans out, deploring the abolition of slavery, or hoarding gold.

If I can find time over the next few weeks, I'm going to write a series of posts explaining why key elements of Ron Paul's popular appeal, such as an antipathy to the freedom of movement, a fixation on national sovereignty, and constitutional fetishism, are inconsistent with a real concern for human freedom. More generally, I want to say something about why flag-waving “libertarianism in one country” types are ultimately no friends of liberty.