The world is full of people with preferences not only about how to live but with tons of advice for others on how to live. Freedom means they can give all the advice they want, and you are free to ignore it — as long they don’t violate your property rights (including your right to your own body). Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.
The great danger for humankind, whether from the Taliban or the communists, has always been the totalizing impulse to turn all social complaints into justifications for political action — to a totalitarian, there is no preference about how other people should act that does not become a political claim. Feminism, like most “positive liberty” philosophies (as opposed to assault-forbidding “negative liberty” ones — such as libertarianism, with its leave-me-alone legal framework), obliterates the distinction between social and political philosophy and inevitably sows the seeds of politicized dissatisfaction with mere unplanned — and potentially very sexist — market outcomes.
As my Arkansas legislator friend so wisely put it, one of libertarianism’s greatest strengths has always been that it counsels us to say, to the feminist who claims “I am politically oppressed because my boyfriend calls me stupid,” the enlightened and freedom-affirming response: “You’re not oppressed, you’re just stupid.”
The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely. If such views become commonplace: libertarianism, R.I.P.
I wrote an article for Liberty in 1993 — which I’m flattered to find Jesse Walker still remembers — that pointed out (in the admittedly different context of the political concerns of fifteen years ago) that despite the richness of local traditions — such as those of the Amish, say (of which I promise I’ve only become more appreciative over the years) — a large, diverse society cannot hope to avoid the decline into a welfare state, with each interest group fighting for its narrow vision of the good life and slice of the communal wealth, unless there is a very strong prevailing loyalty to the shared, universal ground rules of the society, even stronger than the loyalty to many aspects of the local, more tribal culture. If anything, this was in some sense an argument against culturally-rich ethical allegiances and in favor of a strong, rational loyalty to a “thin” set of basic rights, namely (and unequivocally) property rights.
Milton Friedman, to my delight, wrote a response saying that I should not despair because Sweden at that time had managed to roll back some aspects of the welfare/taxation state. Jacob Levy wrote that I should think of America as born not so much of a strong attachment to a limited set of rights as born of a pragmatic truce between factions and sects each with its own very strong conception of the good life, to which it was primarily loyal.
Since 1993, if anything, I’ve become more convinced of the Levy position even than Levy is (live, here in New York City a few years ago, we debated near-opposite positions relative to each other from the ones we took a decade earlier in the pages of Liberty on these issues). That is, I’m more convinced now of the importance of letting local/tribal/traditional cultures be left alone to do their own thing, so long as they don’t violate property rights, the one universal ground rule — which means precisely that fewer of our cultural norms should be “smuggled” into the meta-ethic of libertarianism as a sort of shallow, ersatz mega-culture.
In any case, under libertarianism, Amishness is as permissible as an egalitarian feminist commune. You can argue either is distasteful, but that’s a separate issue.
Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.
There are layers of appropriate response, and most of them are simply none of libertarianism’s business, just as they are none of the state’s business.