Clown Town

Social Conservatism Isn’t Libertarianism

At the recent International Students for Liberty Conference, Mackenzie Holst, Aarón Shelby Baca, and Cory Massimino attempted to read an open letter to Ron Paul about his less-than-savory associations with some figures on the extreme right. I’m not sure that a question and answer session was the best venue for their message, but they raised some important points all the same. It was unfortunate that they were shouted down, and I understand that they have gotten a good deal of online grief in the days since.

They should take heart, however. Some of us are very much on their side. It’s worth quoting their comments at length, and I fully endorse them:

[A]s principled supporters of liberty, we find your appearance at the International Students For Liberty Conference troubling for a few reasons. Most of which relate to your past and current associations with certain individuals and organizations that we find un-libertarian.

We believe many of the people you have aligned yourself with and continue to align yourself with are libertarians only in name and their true ideology is one more akin to a bigoted and authoritarian paleo-conservatism. Your appearance at Mises Circle in Houston, Texas just a few weeks ago is a prime example of this.

The prevalence of an age gap in the libertarian movement has been underscored by the ideas discussed in conferences such as the Mises Circle and put forth by the Mises Institute itself. “Millennial” or “Second-wave” libertarianism is not going away and there seems to be irreconcilable differences between these new libertarians and the old guard, which includes figures such as Lew Rockwell, Hans Herman-Hoppe, Walter Block, Gary North, and yourself. In this letter, we would like to highlight the downright absurdity promoted by this obsolete style of thinking, as delineated in the racist, homophobic, and sexist undertones present in these thinkers’ writings.

The themes of bigotry at the Mises Circle and in many of your colleague’s writings are obvious. At the Mises Circle, Lew Rockwell, founder and chairman of the Mises Institute, compared the life of people under modern nation states to literal chattel slavery. We admit the state is a gang of thieves writ large. But this analogy is downright offensive to people have suffered actual chattel slavery as well as people who have relatively great living standards under modern states. Libertarians can expose the evils of statism without resorting to bad metaphors with blatantly obvious racist undertones.

Hans Herman-Hoppe, distinguished fellow of the Mises Institute, wrote just last year that, “it is societies dominated by white heterosexual males, and in particular by the most successful among them, which have produced and accumulated the greatest amount of capital goods and achieved the highest average living standards.” Hoppe has also advocated violence against homosexuals and other people who live lifestyles he doesn’t approve of, “There can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They-the advocates of alternative, non-family-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism-will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.” The racist and homophobic themes in these passages speak for themselves.

Walter Block, senior fellow at the Mises Institute, has argued, “Feminists and gays aren’t libertarians.” Also on the topic of homosexuals, Block has written, “If a seventeen year old is an adult, and voluntarily wants to have sex with an adult homosexual man, I may not like it. I may be revolted by it.” If that wasn’t clear enough, Block has made his bigoted views explicit, “I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sadomasochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior.” In addition, he has put forth the idea that “lower black IQs” could explain productivity differences between blacks and whites. Again, the arguments speak for themselves.

Gary North, an associated scholar at the Mises Institute, is an outspoken Christian Reconstructionist and supporter of biblical theocracy. North advocates capital punishment by means of stoning for women who lie about their virginity, blasphemers, nonbelievers, children who curse their parents, male homosexuals, and other people who commit acts deemed capital offense in the Old Testament. These views are certainly not representative of the libertarianism we’ve come to know and love.

To make quick work of two less than savory associates: I do not consider Hans-Hermann Hoppe a libertarian, because he is a monarchist. And I do not consider Gary North a libertarian, because he is very openly a theocrat. That leaves Walter Block, whose views are at least a bit interesting.

Here’s the original quote from Walter Block with a bit more context:

Just because a libertarian may refuse to incarcerate perverts, it does not mean he must remain morally neutral about such behavior. So, do we favor or oppose? Support or resist? Root for or against? In this dimension, I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sado-masochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior…

The libertarian may hate and despise the libertine, or he may not. He is not committed one way or the other by his libertarianism, any more than is the holder of the germ theory of disease required to hold any view on libertinism. As a libertarian, he is only obligated not to demand a jail sentence for the libertine. That is, he must not demand incarceration for the non-aggressing, non-child molesting libertine, the one who limits himself to consensual adult behavior. But the libertarian is totally free as a person, as a citizen, as a moralist, as a commentator on current events, as a cultural conservative, to think of libertinism as perverted, and to do what he can to stop it—short of using force. It is into this latter category that I place myself…

At one time I would have scoffed at the idea of doing something merely because it was traditional, and refraining because it was not. My every instinct would have been to do precisely the opposite of the dictates of tradition. But that was before I fully appreciated the thought of F. A. Hayek. From reading his many works (for example, Hayek, 1973), I came to realize that traditions which are disruptive and harmful tend to disappear, whether through voluntary change, or more tragically, by the disappearance of societies that act in accordance with them. Presumably, then, if a tradition has survived, it has some positive value, even if we cannot see it. It is a “fatal conceit” (Hayek, 1989) to call into question everything for which good and sufficient reason cannot be immediately given. How else can we justify the “blindly obedient” practice of wearing ties and collars, for example?

This is a very important subject for libertarians to get right as a movement. Certainly in the wider culture, people who find homosexuals abhorrent aren’t reproducing in large enough numbers that their opinions will pass as part of the conventional wisdom for very much longer. More and more, whenever such views show up, they will tend to raise eyebrows. Ordinary people, who now generally aren’t anti-gay, will inevitably start asking questions. And that means that we libertarians will need an answer. (As if having an answer for our own peace of mind were not sufficient!)

At least three possibilities open up. I should stress from the start that none of them involve the state persecuting gay and lesbian adults for consensual behavior. But that’s where the similarities end.

First: Are views like the above a core part of what libertarians ought to believe? Are they so important that it’s worth drawing a bright line between libertarian views on one side, and libertine views on the other? Block’s concluding paragraphs seem to say yes: The practice of condemning queer people in private speech must have some positive value, even if we can’t readily identify it. Precisely like giving up ties and collars, if we gave up speaking ill of people for their private sexual acts, our whole society might disappear.

This view would commit libertarians to opposing libertinage, so called. Not, of course, with oppressive laws, but certainly with private censure. One can never be too careful when society itself is at stake!

Second: Are views like the above an optional part of the libertarian ideology, bits that someone can choose – or not – as a matter of complete indifference?

Block seemed to suggest as much in his second paragraph. That is, just before he changed his mind and bit the social conservative bullet. Let’s suppose he was right in saying that these things are, for libertarians, an indifferent matter. (Let’s also suppose that what libertarians want is identical to what’s best for society. I will try not to care if I lose my nonlibertarian readers here. I need to do that sometimes, you know.)

If these views really are a matter of indifference – and if the rest of the libertarian program is not a matter of indifference – then we should cheerfully jettison our private social conservatism: Leaving it behind will help us win the things that really matter. And leaving it behind will not actually harm society. Our personal conservative preferences do not matter for good social outcomes: If we thought they did, we’d have picked the first of my three options. But we also perhaps would have added something alien to libertarianism.

Third: Are there not very solid, very libertarian reasons, to say that Walter Block is just plain wrong here? I think there might be. We claim to want individual liberty – but why? What makes liberty of this type a goal worth pursuing? Or – to state the same thing a bit differently – why is individual liberty a goal so important that we would forego many other goals to attain it?

The reason is as follows: You and I are different. As a direct result, different things will make us happy. And different things will repel us. We will have different convictions on matters that cannot easily be settled. We have different ideas of what a well-authored life would look like, and we are literally never going to agree on them.

As libertarians, we accept that we can use markets to sort a lot of these differences out, to trade on them and make efficient use of diversity. And when markets fail, we’ll retreat to our private lives and leave each other alone. That’s not nirvana by anyone’s lights, but it’s pretty solid. Carping about our private differences isn’t likely to make anyone happier, particularly when society isn’t actually at stake.

It also appears very doubtful as an empirical matter that a lack of repressive (though fully private!) attitudes toward homosexuality will cause civilization to collapse. Some things can and do cause civilization to collapse – but at least in the modern era, these things would all appear to require a government. So we can all relax already.

I have defended libertinage before, and I will continue to do so here: Past societies got all kinds of things flat-out wrong. They began with big things, like the status of women and racial minorities, and they ended with little ones, like ties and collars, which are no more the mark of a proper civilization than are culottes. One can be good or evil while wearing either one. (Can one be fashionable? That’s quite another question, and one on which we can have proper and even objective opinions in a much less heated context. Now is not the time or place.)

Lastly, Hayek’s insight that comprehensive social planning involves a fatal conceit does not commit us to accepting every random social structure that did not arise by our own planning. Besides the structures that we dream up ourselves, some of the ones that we encounter in the wild can also be pretty depraved. They can be every bit as bad as our own efforts, and often even worse. And sometimes, we can know it.