While all libertarians — all human beings — are well aware that voluntary interactions can prove more painful than the impositions of law (I’d rather get a parking ticket than a broken heart, for example), libertarian Kerry Howley thinks libertarians need to do more, as a matter of basic principle, to combat some of those non-legal forms of pain (and she does not address the important question of whether this will encourage a culture of whining
, leading to more welfare-statism).
The Reason November issue’s symposium on Howley’s culturally left-leaning view of libertarianism — with Dan McCarthy and me as her critics — is online, as are Reason readers’ many comments on our pieces (here, too, are some thoughts about the debate from an entity named Publion, who e-mailed me this link).
I notice one Reason commenter accuses me of pushing a bare-bones property-rights-focused version of libertarianism because I’m simply trying to espouse the most marketable version of libertarianism regardless of whether it’s the correct one, which is not quite right — but as a utilitarian, I do think, looplike as it may sound, that a moral philosophy must take into account its own likelihood of being adopted.
I also notice many people saying that if I’m arguing against Howley she must have recommended property rights violations. Actually, I’m not saying she (already) wants coercion, though I’m saying that the views she encourages make coercion more likely than spreading conventional libertarianism would. Also, that she simply has no rational basis for identifying what oppresses, once she’s said property isn’t the litmus test. Old-fashioned behavior bad, new-fangled good, apparently?
Put another way: it seems to me there are three possible ways to interpret Howley, all of them disturbing:
1. Either Howley wants property rights violations (by normal libertarian standards) and somewhat disingenuously has thus far avoided saying so outright.
2. Or she doesn’t — and thus I’m still right that’s the crucial litmus test libertarians use to pick their positions (in which I case I sort of win the argument).
3. Or she’s relatively indifferent to whether her view leads to violating property rights, in which case I still win, in so far as I’m right to warn libertarians against her and right to see her philosophy as dissolving libertarianism in a warm bath of fuzzier, largely unresolvable cultural concerns.
My guess is that #2 is the case — and I say that mainly because I want to be generous (by my standards). But then, as Kerry’s husband (or fiance — forgive me if I’ve jumped the gun) Will Wilkinson says on his blog today, with a chivalrous defense of her almost as long as the symposium articles themselves, Howley knew — and warned — that she would be misunderstood. It can’t be easy.
Mostly-coincidentally, my own girlfriend, Helen Rittelmeyer, will have a piece on Doublethink soon criticizing feminist and woman-focused blogs, and it will mention Howley briefly — so we’re almost back to where we started one year ago when I first started dating Helen, reporting on the rise of “liberaltarians” like Wilkinson, and sparring online with Howley — but since I’m really the tolerant big-tent one here, I will endeavor to be nice to the liberaltarians after today. If I can work with mere market-friendly moderates or the occasional religious-rightist, after all, I should be able to get along with liberaltarians, even if they’re slightly wrong.
The Howley argument did begin, more or less, with the question of whether feminism is naturally compatible with libertarianism — and though she’s now framing her argument more humbly, as encouragement for libertarians to push beyond their usual property concerns and address cultural issues, it’s worth remembering that last year she was actually claiming that libertarianism already is a philosophy of cultural leftism/feminism and that some weird subset of libertarians like me are trying to revise it and make it a property-focused philosophy, as if I just got here yesterday.
She also quite explicitly said that there is this curious Gen X cohort of libertarians who encountered radical, p.c. feminism on college campuses and thus think of it as a censorious, anti-freedom philosophy. And as a forty year-old friend of mine said when I mentioned Howley saying our cohort got its impression of feminism that way: “No shit.”
Was our experience really so aberrant? Of course, nowadays (Howley is twenty-seven), young people may feel more like they can say whatever they want without fear of offending, but I expect that’s largely because the censorious prior wave of students was so successful in training everyone to talk as if there are no “essential” differences between the sexes. No need to censor anymore if no one can really think of anything to say (except, like Cartman, “Whatever — I do what I want!”).
Howley at least frankly says she wants libertarians to be more feminist, in this blog entry last week and in the course of her sparring with Ilya Somin, who also disagrees with her. Since she’s donated eggs (as she discussed at one of our Lolita Bar panels), expressed sympathy for transhumanism, and called the Catholic Church a major threat to freedom, I’m going to assume Howley considers abortion acceptable — and perhaps it is, but I have long thought (even before I was a libertarian, in fact) that abortion is a perfect example of why, by and large, we do not want people to be feminists. Whether or not abortion is murder hinges on the nature and moral status of the fetus, hopefully not on what its destruction will do to shake or bolster the patriarchy. Deciding an issue like abortion through the lens of feminism is like deciding the issue of slavery based on the relative merits of African and European art.
As libertarians, do we really want a world where, when someone is asked “What, if anything, do you think the government should do about the relative salaries of men and women?” she thinks not of property rights and company ownership but of the vague, ever-shifting kaleidoscope of culture and what she thinks can best be done to improve women’s status in it to wherever it should be in a culture-criticism sense?
(I regret, by the way, that Reason’s editing of Howley’s piece removed her praise of the profoundly anti-capitalist thinker Herbert Marcuse, not only because that praise revealed why we have legitimate reason to fear where her thinking leads but also because both my piece and McCarthy’s contained Marcuse references in reaction to that passage of hers. We didn’t just make up the Marcuse tendencies. Nor am I hallucinating when I remind you Howley likes Simone de Beauvoir, who explicitly favored forcibly removing children from their patriarchal families so that they could be raised communally — a perfectly logical course of action, really, if, like Howley, you think culture oppresses just like physical force. Seeing society as a web of “coercive” beliefs is precisely the paranoid habit of mind that created much of twentieth-century statism — as a supposed “cure” for social ills — and now Howley has belatedly rediscovered that there’s social oppression all around us, mercifully assuring us she won’t use statism as a means of retaliation but giving no reason to think others angered by cultural oppression will be as merciful.)
More deeply offensive, though, is Howley’s implication that the world is divided into people who think as she does about the way culture forms our characters and people who simply don’t think about culture forming character.
Implying that feminism, for example, is among things that libertarians obviously would/should embrace if they were thoughtful people is as ridiculous as saying (as people often do) that the alternative to shallowness is [whatever they happen to believe]. Thus: “It’s a shame people are so shallow and apolitical [since they would otherwise be Obama-supporters],” “It is too bad that people are satisfied by mindless entertainment [since thoughtful people would plainly appreciate my poetry],” “It is sad that people are morally weak [since they would otherwise become Christians],” “Surely you are tired of living stupidly [and thus are ready to embrace Scientology],” and so on.
I am not opposed to “thick” considerations of culture — I am opposed to assuming Howley has the culture/law causality all figured out, especially when many of my intuitions about which cultural trends are helpful seem to be the opposite of hers (machismo seems to produce a lot of libertarian folk like Clint Eastwood, for example –and, for that matter, worrying overmuch about cultural oppression seems, demographically speaking, to be one of the greatest manufacturers of statist footsoldiers). But we should always be wary of people feigning tolerance and neutrality while trying to slip their own preferences into the purported meta-narrative explaining everyone else’s story.
Before we go importing feminism (or whatever other left-cultural goods Howley has in mind) into the basic framework of liberty, we might at least want to address, for example, the argument that the major cultural force blinding people these days to history and the shaping of our minds by causal forces such as biology and culture is…Third Wave feminism, with its pretense that everyone is a newborn chameleon about whom no accurate predictions can be made and to whom no generalizations can ever be applied. Expecting profundity about gender matters from people who think like that, in my experience, is like expecting carefully-crafted ethical arguments from a relativist. A teenage girl relativist.
I’m sorry. That was slightly sexist, not just property-focused, but then, as Helen pointed out to me (in the form of this New York Times article), there aren’t many female philosophers, and some think that the very idea of intellectual combat may just not be as appealing to women as to men. Is it offensive to think that? Has that article oppressed us all? Has it oppressed Howley? Do we know it prima facie to be false, since nothing smacking of sexism can be true in the new-type libertarian future? Beats me. I have to wait for Howley to tell me what is proper thought now.
But in truth, feminism is a side issue, and let us hope it remains one.
The larger problem is just people importing all their favorite cultural baggage into the purported definition of what libertarianism (and liberty) is supposed to be — unless Howley imagines she will be the last person to do so.
I notice that one Micha Ghertner, for example, in one of Howley’s comment threads, says: “I personally take it as part of my libertarian project to attempt to convince Orthodox Jews to view their lifestyles as liberty-depriving and to abandon them, and also to gently prod monogamous people, not necessarily to experiment with polyamory, but to at least tolerate and respect those who do…”
Well, I don’t happen to go around encouraging Orthodox Judaism or being mean to polyamorists, but once more, I think you can see our constituency shrinking here instead of growing, if Ghertner’s attitude is ever taken to be mandatory for all libertarians as opposed to simply mandatory for Ghertner if Ghertner wants to keep being Ghertner with Ghertner’s set of preferences. And Howley is clearly suggesting that all libertarians ought to share her cultural mission, not just that we tolerate her continued existence.
She is the utopian (to return to my blog theme this month), pushing a specific cultural agenda, while I am more akin to Robert Nozick, wanting only a “meta-utopia” in which different people pursue whatever ends — including rigid and cultish ones — the market will bear. (McCarthy somehow strikes Howley as more tolerable than me, I think, even though his idea of a meta-utopia is clearly one in which paleoconservative, religious communities are presumed the most likely to win out over time, something I’m by no means asserting — I just say “let’s see how things shake out, even if they turn out very sexist, etc.”)
What will I absolutely not tolerate? Well, I’m a libertarian, so, again, it’s property rights violations. Would Howley deny that this is and has always been the easiest rubric by which to predict libertarians’ positions? Is she so confident that culture-criticism yields clear answers that she really wants people to drift away from using that as the clear-cut rubric? Aren’t we just back in the mix with all the econ-ignoring yahoos that make up the bulk of the body politic once we do that? It’s very, very hard to get people to put economic reasoning first, you know, and they’re frighteningly eager to use other, wildly unpredictable means of settling legal and ethical disputes — so why encourage them?
And it’s not just that cultural criticism might distract people from economic reasoning (so do sitcoms, after all). Rather, I think libertarians, of all people, should emphasize whenever possible that there is a real and substantial moral distinction between physical coercion and mental “coercion” — and our cause is lost once we abandon that distinction (the social conservatives will immediately say “Well, he coerced me by insulting my flag,” the left-liberals will say that hate speech demands legal redress, gang members will say they shot people but only people who disrespected them, etc.).
The distinction is not arbitrary. If indeed choice matters, then we should never, never forget that no matter how difficult it can be to weigh one’s options within a culture, one does choose. Once a gun is put to one’s head, the other person chooses. Libertarianism, above all else, is the philosophy that never lets people forget that distinction. Howley wants us to. The non-libertarians of the world will have much to celebrate if she succeeds.
The actual, empirical, historical pattern has been for tyranny to start by denying this difference, which is why I wonder how Howley or Wilkinson can pretend for a moment to have the “historically-informed” high ground. Have they not noticed that the form of “consciousness-raising” that treats traditional — and capitalist — social context as oppressive is precisely where the coercion tends to begin?
But if we must, for the sake of morality, bite the bullet and start creating a more libertarian culture, what, really, seriously does that mean, for those of us to whom it’s not as intuitively obvious as it is to Howley but who (believe it or not) genuinely want to be good people? Please enlighten us, damn it: When are we truly free? What things must I believe? Will Howley really ever tell us explicitly? (And isn’t it deforming to my character and limiting of my choices if I have to wait for her to tell me?)
It is precisely because these sorts of cultural issues are never settled that libertarians have for so long been keen to keep them out of the basic definition of freedom — and out of law. Howley doesn’t want to improve libertarianism. She wants, even if unwittingly, to undo it.
This past Friday I caught the very end of a Mercatus Center/Institute for Humane Studies event here in NYC that featured a discussion by William Ruger and Jason Sorens about their recent study attempting to rank the fifty states according to how free they are, using libertarian criteria. They looked at economic regulations, gun control laws, and so on. I can’t help wondering what a hopeless, subjective, incoherent morass a study like that would become if it attempted to use Howleyan criteria. Would it have to survey people to see where people were most polite? Or is politeness itself sort of oppressive, since it’s normally rooted in traditional social expectations (one might prefer loud, anarchic public farting, after all)?
Should New York and L.A. go up in the rankings because people seem less fazed by porn in these places (legal issues notwithstanding, I mean)? Or should those places be ranked even lower because porn oppresses women by reinforcing the patriarchy? I honestly don’t know. (That’s one the Third Wave feminists certainly don’t seem to have worked out either — so do we await their verdict and only then amend libertarianism accordingly? Howley? Guidance? Verdict?)
Howley and Wilkinson, incidentally, are in Iowa, as is Christine Whelan (my boss’s daughter), to whom I e-introduced Howley — and Whelan happens to address a very concrete recent example of cultural suasion doing damage as severe as law: the three people who died under instructions from a self-help guru to remain in a sweat lodge. Now, I can imagine Howley saying this is a perfect example of why we must not merely object to physical coercion but to guru-hood — but then again, don’t people normally find themselves in New Age sweat lodges because they are anti-traditionalists attempting some sort of “self-actualization”? Boy, this stuff gets complicated, so I’m glad Howley has it worked out. Otherwise, I’d just keep adhering to property rights and have no strong opinion on the sweat lodge guru.
(But maybe I shouldn’t imagine what Howley would say about anything — I certainly find it annoying when she ends her Reason piece with an entire imaginary dialogue with Todd Seavey, who, funny thing, somehow comes off sounding a bit stupider than in real life. In this, she is certainly behaving like a leftist, as I notice they’ve become quite enamored, in the era of blogs and cutting-and-pasting, of trying to indict people by, say, substituting the phrase “African-Americans” for the phrase “communists” in someone else’s writing to supposedly show that the person is a bigot…or rather would be if he had actually said that about African-Americans…or… something…)
Rather than merely speculate about one important aspect of Howley’s views, though, maybe we should come right out and ask her: Does she want more property violations than I do, or less? I am an anarcho-capitalist. What is Howley if not that? If she is as mysterious and easily-misunderstood as Wilkinson suggests, perhaps we should not assume we know. And come to think of it, if Howley does want us to think that her attitude leads to less, not more, coercion, should we perhaps be troubled by the fact that she and Wilkinson are so simpatico, since — rightly or wrongly — you have to admit that his shtick is arguing that libertarians ought to accept elements of the welfare state? Would it be so crazy to suggest that cultural leftism tends to be the natural ally not of libertarian law but, as most people assume, of creeping modern-liberal statism?
I’d be delighted if Howley demonstrated she’s bucking that trend by saying explicitly that she’s a strict anarcho-capitalist — in the conventional sense of the term, not in some secret new-fangled sense where, say, being a tolerant listener is more important than being someone who stays off welfare, etc.
In conclusion: in an important way, I’m the tolerant one here — because I’m saying once you’re over the hurdle of property adherence, you’re in the clear, qua libertarian. Howley says we must do more — and I’m not at all confident she hath revealed unto us the full list of specific things we have to do. I might be willing to do them all — heck, I’m a modern, tolerant guy, so I may already be doing them. But like Kafka, I resent not knowing — and the suggestion that she does know. Do I have to love modern art? Must I find gay sex as aesthetically appealing as straight sex? Should I talk about atheism even more than I do? Less? Differently? Become agnostic instead? Inquiring, freedom-loving minds deserve to know, and apparently only Howley can tell us.