Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Culture Wars Revisited


Given the bare-bones description of property I gave in my blog entry two days ago — and given just how extensive the range of social interactions affected by that vision of property would be — you can now perhaps understand why I was aghast, during (and just before) last month’s “Month of Feminism” sparring with Wilkinson and Howley, by the suggestion that libertarianism (the legal and policy implications of which most libertarians take to be generated by a vision of property more or less like the one I was describing) should have various cultural side issues imported into it such as a certain take on gender.

It would be a bit like if Plato’s Guardians (much as I hate to use an authoritarian metaphor) had added to their very basic list of duties to the polis the arbitrary and faddish command “and ensure the populace always buys its groceries at Stuckey’s.” The Guardians are welcome to have their opinions — likely varying ones — about who has the best buys on produce, but somehow the very basic rules they are charged with enforcing and promulgating were meant to be something more neutral and potentially universally-respected. (And you understand intuitively what I mean even if in point of fact Plato envisioned a precise diet for all good Greeks — rework the analogy using the Bill of Rights and the insertion of a specific sports regimen if you like.)

Libertarians, irrelevant as we may often seem, have a big philosophical responsibility so long as no one else gets this bare-bones property idea, and it doesn’t help if we try to smuggle partisan culture-warrior positions into our ostensibly truce-like and unbiased philosophy.


Anything not violating property rights, including one’s right to one’s own body, is permitted — legally, that is. That doesn’t at all mean anyone’s obliged to consider it morally, aesthetically, or psychologically acceptable, of course, including libertarians themselves. Their diverse opinions on subtle ethical and aesthetic matters will be generated from places other than libertarianism itself or law itself, these things being by design limited in scope. That’s why conservatives (in particular) who talk as if libertarians are merely nihilists are either deliberately misrepresenting us or are too dense to grasp the difference between law and culture — essentially making them socialists or some other form of totalitarian.

I suspect a combination of misrepresentation and denseness, or rather the intellectually dishonest strategic deployment of a willful refusal to understand — selective denseness, if you will — of the sort that enables people to say (but never fully, honestly believe): “You’re not a Methodist like me? Well, then, I’m sorry to hear you love evil and depravity and misery so much.”

A property regime’s open-ended legal “neutrality” does mean, though, that I would do well to exhibit now — even overemphasize — the sort of diplomacy that would be required of everyone in a world where all but property violations must be tolerated — in the sense of tolerance that merely means not responding violently, as opposed to the sort of tolerance that means theatre critics must stop writing harsh reviews, priests cannot issue moral denunciations, and protesters must put down their picket signs. So in some limited sense, yes, all philosophies that do not explicitly call for property violations are compatible with libertarianism, and it might be intellectually worthwhile, like a game of Tetris, to see what their areas of fit and disjunction are.

I don’t think many present-day feminists embrace a feminism devoid of anti-libertarian legal ramifications, but, all right, ask what one might look like. Likewise, remind socialists of their non-statist voluntary-communalist roots in the early nineteenth century, if you wish. Ask yourself, too, just how puritanical a religious-fundamentalist society could be fostered without the use of law (beyond the libertarian laws against assault, theft, and fraud). But let’s not get so mesmerized in the process of these thought experiments that we think a newfound chumminess with such philosophies requires or even permits going back and altering the property rights groundrules — or changes the property rights focus of libertarianism proper.


Take that Cowgirl Hall of Fame bar gathering I mentioned going to in yesterday’s entry — that bar no doubt contained some gun aficionados (at least, it had me in it, reading Brian Doherty’s Gun Control on Trial), some who hate gun culture, some lesbians, people indifferent to lesbians, and as it happens a few people who go to the annual Burning Man art festival and call themselves part of a Freedom Community that prides itself on quietly and civilly talking itself out of all inhibitions, interpersonal conflicts, and insecurities. But none of these things were necessary for legal entry into the “neutral” space of the bar — and for that matter, much as I like some of the Freedom Community members, I wouldn’t say that getting rid of inhibitions is a necessary component of freedom, as I understand freedom.

Certainly, people being inhibited about taking stuff without permission, we’d all agree, would be beneficial whether they’re under my envisioned property laws or the resources-strapped confines of a Burning Man camp. Beyond that, my cultural allegiance to (or at least strong aesthetic preference for) even very strong inhibitions — the kind that keep fat guys from taking their shirts off in fancy restaurants — is perfectly compatible with freedom in the libertarian, property-respecting sense, and it’s very important to let people know that, so that they don’t think they have to abandon their existing cultural allegiances — their thick, local, traditional ties or their universalist anarchic or liberal principles — in order to sign onto this thing called property rights, which is unpopular enough as it is. (Girlfriend Helen and I differ slightly in our reasons for liking punk — me seeing it as individualistic and her seeing it as rigidly rule-bound and tribalistic — but it would be insane to think we need to resolve that dispute, or that anyone else even needs to care about it, before agreeing on a system of laws.)


To put it another way, I would hate to make people think that libertarianism is getting mushy or downright juvenile in such a way that concrete axioms such as “Cut the budget” and “Eliminate taxes to the greatest extent possible” were going to be replaced by vaguer, attitudinal axioms that might rub plenty of decent, property-respecting people the wrong way, such as “Just do it” or “You gotta be you” or “You’re not the boss of me!”

We are fans of economist Walter Williams, so to speak, not necessarily Walt Whitman (and all right, technically not necessarily even Williams, much as I love the guy). None of this means we have to be stodgy either. My libertarian novelist friend Katherine Taylor is plenty hip but still likes the slogan “Sassiness doesn’t pay” more than “You’re not the boss of me.” Stick that in your “Just do it,” if you see what I mean.

I just want budget cuts and deregulation, I often say — but in truth I’d also like better sci-fi movies and more New Wave-like music. I just recognize that the latter two items are not part of a serious legal philosophy.


Xine said...

You might be interested to know that most of the bands profiled in Michael Azerrad’s *Our Band Could Be Your Life* side strongly with you in your disagreement with Helen about punk (you=individualistic, Helen=rigidly rule-bound and tribalistic). Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Minor Threat, even Black Flag…they all complained in the book that what was born as a movement of fuck-you freedom and individualism quickly became co-opted by fans into — yes — an intolerant checklist of required looks and attitudes justifying a tribal mentality that permitted taunting and beating up anyone who didn’t fit its narrow confines, and that was just as stifling and oppressive as anything early punks rebelled against. This was a key reason why Greg Ginn and Grant Hart grew their hair out (and let it be known they admired the Grateful Dead) and why D. Boon and Mike Watt kept flying the flannel, and something that contributed to Ian MacKaye’s embrace of straight edge. One of them comments (I can’t remember who and don’t have the book at hand), unsurprisingly, that the rapid development of such orthodoxy and tribalism often produced incredibly crappy second- and third-generation punk bands, who not only betrayed punk’s original spirit of individualism but also thought that all you needed was a name like “Reagan Death” and a shaved head to be a good punk band.

Granted, these are American bands, and I have no idea if English punk bands felt similarly. But perhaps we can frame this as a generational difference between you and Helen: you are indeed reflecting the original genius that animated the founding fathers; she reflects what indeed eventually became (albeit to the dismay of those founding fathers) the dominating ethos of American punk.

Todd Seavey said...

And the means of squaring the circle here (or scrawling a sloppy “A” in the circle, if you will), for political purposes, is to recognize that we should appreciate _both_ the comfort people find from immersion in densely rule-bound communities _and_ their freedom to leave such communities, the latter facilitated by not turning such communities’ particular rules into actual laws enforced by cops.

This in turn is why I think libertarians should be much quicker to talk of property rights than about individualism or, say, “free-spiritedness” per se. Over the long haul, a complete free market may produce a population nearly all of whose members decide to become strict Mennonites, for instance.

And with that, I hope many things that may sound contradictory in my philosophy and rhetoric start to make a bit more sense…

Todd Seavey said...

P.S. And as it happens, evolutionary psychology expert, egg donor, former co-panelist with Kerry Howley, and sometime critic of feminism Diana Fleischman informs me that Will Wilkinson and Kerry Howley are engaged. Rather than calling it a triumph of traditionalism, I will anticipate news that they’re writing their own vows (and no doubt writing them well).

My wedding gift to them will be to stop criticizing them (and to wish them many utils).

P.P.S. By contrast, my gift to Diana is to declare that February will be an overdue Month of Evolution on this blog, as befits the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth.

Todd Seavey said...

Oh, and my favorite property-violation-related headline today:

Portly ‘ninja’ tries to steal Florida ATM machines

Todd Seavey said...

[...] 4. I always thought Lesley looked a lot like my friend who sometimes comments here under the handle Xine — and who most recently did so to explain why girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer and I might have somewhat opposing yet equally positive views of punk. This has prompted Helen to reply with an entry on her blog called “‘Conservatism for Punks’ for Punks,” defending her brutal, tribalistic view of the musical genre (as opposed to my individualistic one). I wonder, sometimes, if the sorts of things that typically cause Helen to declare something conservative — such as embracing suffering, violence, and intense rule-adherence — would even be recognizable as conservatism by most conservatives. I can’t picture Buckley in a mosh pit. (If Helen weren’t so lovely, I’d be scared sometimes. But she also makes brilliant suggestions like us being Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi from Ghost World the next time we have a costume party to go to.) [...]