Back in college, my friend Chris and his (beautiful albeit leftist) friend Sasha both spotted a copy of a book by pro-censorship feminist Catharine MacKinnon lying around, and, spontaneously and simultaneously, he (being a libertarian) pointed at it and said “Devil!” just as Sasha said “Goddess!”
(If our Debates at Lolita Bar were that brief, no one would attend, despite the obvious drama — but I hope our longer, stickier debate on January 7 on the issue of intellectual property rights will be attended by plenty of people, especially by the debater who’s defending property rights, since I have not yet recruited him or her.)
Imagine my surprise years after the devil/goddess incident when MacKinnon, notorious for helping to write anti-porn statutes, was pointed to, in that essay by Long and Johnson noted earlier in this Month of Feminism, as a great example of the sort of feminist to whom libertarians should be reaching out, doing an end-run around more conventional, liberal-as-opposed-to-leftist feminists.
This strikes me as a case — very common back in the nineteenth century and undeniably sort of cute, harmonious, and fun, especially when one’s feeling marginalized anyway — of radicals simply thinking that all radicals are in some sense on the same side, since the bourgeoisie are boring, unreflective sticks in the mud. (It took about a century after the French Revolution for the anarchists and socialists and liberals and religious-communitarians and so forth to figure out they weren’t all on the same page philosophically and perhaps should even be trying to kill each other. As a fusionist myself, I can understand the desire to build bridges and reunite disparate factions — really, I swear.)
And, sure, when radicals stick to promoting negative liberty (rights that prevent any one person or faction from harming another), they actually can get along fairly well, but once they each start pushing a different positive-liberty agenda (that is, some morally and politically charged, often legally-enforced, robust vision of the good life), they inevitably clash — which is not the end of the world so long as these visions remain subordinated to, rather than vying for direct incorporation into, a simple libertarian legal framework that keeps them from using force against each other. Isaiah Berlin somehow had time to write about this negative/positive contrast and compose catchy songs like “Tea for Two” (just kidding — that’s Irving Berlin, who, it strikes me, was also probably a big influence on the Aerosmith song “Ragdoll”).
Anyway, in the twenty-first century, one place where various radical strains meet is the Mises Institute in Auburn, AL, from whom I’ve learned plenty about economics but from which, for example, Ron Paul’s congressional office also seems to have gotten some of its ethnically-troubling militia-man rhetoric a couple decades ago. Let’s forget all that, though, and assume everyone involved has grown since then — black president, new era, etc. (if things go badly enough in the near future amidst the ongoing financial crisis, maybe our first African-American president will also prove to be our final U.S. president, rendering a lot of these more hair-splitting philosophical disputes irrelevant and forcing people to focus on more basic issues like reloading the crossbow to fend off the wasteland mutants, etc., while effete movements belonging to a more cushy era, such as conservatism and libertarianism, are forgotten).
Now, I suppose if, as I occasionally suggest, I’d like to see libertarian ideas become as mainstream and bourgeois-palatable as a trip to the mall (or the agora, as a black-market anarchist might say), I should probably be troubled by the fact that the Mises Institute radicals are about the only organized folks pushing the particular philosophical package I’m (ultimately) touting — anarcho-capitalism, the idea of privatizing all government functions (eventually) so that government simply vanishes from the Earth altogether, about which I’ll write far more next month, during this blog’s “Month of Liberty (i.e., Property).”
But please at least note the irony that Rod Long, one of the writers suggested as an antidote to my stark, strongly property-based, ostensibly unpopular vision of libertarianism (due to his feminism and purportedly greater emphasis on social context), is also an associate of the Mises Institute. This should at least suggest the possibility that I am not the far-out right-winger with no hope of finding popular acceptance here (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — and I value the intellectual contributions of everyone mentioned or even implied here, really). Indeed, not only is Long associated with one of the very few organizations in the country to be both anarchist and radically anti-immigration (I’m glossing over all sorts of internal diversity, of course), but he’s apparently considered part of the self-consciously radical Alliance of the Libertarian Left to boot.
Again, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but surely I’m not the (sole) outlier/fringe guy here. For a couple amusing — though not necessarily wrongheaded — examples of really obscure factionalism, you might examine:
1. the left-hand margin essay on that A.L.L. site about why they no longer call themselves part of the M.L.L., the Movement of the Libertarian Left, an umbrella movement that is apparently now claimed as the intellectual property of one dead anarchist’s estate, namely Samuel E. Konkin III’s (suggesting that those are the people I really need to recruit to defend intellectual property in next month’s debate, especially if I can’t find a Galambosian)
2. the essay linked on the A.L.L. page that denounces utilitarian anarcho-capitalists (like me) as in effect too right-wing compared to natural-rights anarcho-capitalists, an essay with the great — albeit to my mind non-coalition-enlarging — title “Market Anarchism as Stigmergic Socialism” (so I guess I can’t technically claim to be a stigmergic socialist, though if nanotech and biotech continue to advance, I would enjoy someday being a stegosaurus anarchist, primarily because of the spiky tail, obviously — as long as I retained my human-level intellect and could thus fight crime, which I would define as entailing only assault, theft, or fraud).
I’m really not out to make anyone sound too weird to be called “libertarian,” though (some would argue that a non-weird libertarian is practically a contradiction in terms). More broadly, I think I have a pretty good track record of avoiding semantic disputes over who does or doesn’t count as part of any given political “tribe.” I’d rather argue about the merits or demerits of policies than waste time policing the tribal boundaries.
At the same time, though — and precisely because of this tendency — I’d love it if others were as cautious about not trying to shoehorn their own narrow cultural agendas into the basic definition of libertarianism (or liberty, lest this seem irrelevant to those outside the movement).
Obviously, I’ve got certain right-wing sympathies or I wouldn’t call my own philosophy “conservatism for punks” (about which, more next month and much more thereafter) — but, crucially, you don’t hear me saying that this particular philosophical formulation (which is partly an ironic thought-experiment anyway) is coextensive with libertarianism, which I take to be more or less just the assertion that property rights should rarely if ever be violated. Beyond that, different libertarians have different cultural agendas, which I hope will always be compatible with liberty and libertarianism but should rarely be taken to be definitional requirements for liberty or libertarianism.
And my conservatism shouldn’t be exaggerated, by the way — there’s a reason the “punks” part of this blog’s slogan is in there, and it’s not because I actually think Republicans are the norm within punk rock. But I will say this for right-leaning libertarians: I think there is generally speaking far less danger of culturally-conservative or Wall Street Journal-style “fiscally conservative” libertarians sneaking their cultural preferences into the basic definitions of liberty and libertarianism, precisely because these right-leaning people have other places to put their cultural preferences: churches, rituals, family rules, traditions, art, etc.
I think the left-libertarian is more inclined to smuggle her views into libertarianism’s core definition — and thereby either corrode or narrow the whole concept of libertarianism — because, having to some degree rejected tradition and bourgeois society, the left-libertarian needs our formerly-humble (largely economic) philosophy to do a lot more work in her life. The philosophy now has to become a repository of aesthetic, psychological, artistic, etc. preferences and norms — in precisely the way it long avoided becoming, giving it an admirable “neutrality” of sorts.
If we start calling feminist behavior, to return to my dispute with Kerry Howley and Will Wilkinson, “more libertarian” than non-feminist behavior, we might as well start declaring (however subtly) what art, clothes, and music libertarians ought to prefer, as libertarians. This would not just be an error. This would be the death knell of a philosophy once made coherent precisely by the humility and minimalism of its claims. This is libertarianism stretched beyond its area of expertise in an effort to make it a (shoddy) totalizing worldview. It can never achieve that, not without lots of arbitrary add-ons.
And without some definitive left-libertarian announcement of which behaviors are to be preferred, who knows which aspects of the culture will be deemed to have fallen off the libertarian wagon while people like me went along naively thinking that “everything that’s peaceful” (in the sense of property-adhering) was by definition in accord with the philosophy (albeit not, we all agree, necessarily nice).
And with that, I’ll try to practice what I preach by avoiding claiming that anyone has ceased to be a libertarian who honestly claims to see himself as one, since excommunication is lame, and having Bill Maher or Camille Paglia ostensibly aboard certainly makes things interesting. But Catharine MacKinnon, for one, isn’t even trying, you have to admit.