Libertarians and the culture war
Libertarianism can be summed up in the motto ‘live and let live’. Libertarianism is about freedom to live according your own preferences and principles, and respecting the equal rights of others live according to theirs. Libertarians reject much or all of the state for breaching that core concept – we rightly see that the state is often used as a vehicle for one group of people forcing their preferences onto others, when those disagreements should be resolved outside of the coercive power of the state. Disagreement is to be resolved by debate and discussion, not through sending armed agents of the state to shut you down, and if we cannot agree then we agree to disagree and go our separate ways. One of the core strengths of the wide and deep civil society arrangement that libertarians favour is that there is a place for everyone, and people who fundamentally disagree don’t need to be roped into together through the state – we can coexist peacefully, and even possibly without knowing those we disagree with are there. Libertarianism therefore should go hand in hand with tolerance – the willingness to show forbearance to those who you dislike or disagree with.
What, then, is the culture war and how should libertarians respond to it? For the purpose of this article, I will use the definition Google offers up: ‘a conflict between groups with different ideals, beliefs, philosophies, etc’. At one level, culture war is an inevitable feature of a large and diverse society, as there will always be people who have values at odds with others. Conservatives are going to have their sensibilities rubbed the wrong way by progressives and vice versa; Christians and atheists are going to irritate each other with their competing claims over whether God is real; those who want equality of opportunity and those who want equality of outcomes will always find themselves at loggerheads. The only way to avoid these sorts of clashes all together would be to segregate everyone into small homogenous communities, and I doubt that most people would be willing to trade the prosperity and opportunities we have, which stem from being in larger groupings, for such an outcome.
The issue is that those differences don’t lead to a ‘live and let live’ attitude, and instead lead to what can be best described as a big slanging match across society. It isn’t simply enough that people can live their own lives and leave others to leaving theirs – the lives of other people become my business in the culture war. The mere existence of people with bad ideas are an affront to the sensibilities of decent people, and those bad people need to be driven underground or out of town. The culture war is nothing but virtue signalling (that supposedly dastardly thing to do) on the grandest scale imaginable – virtue signalling turned into civilizational conflict. And unfortunately, this battle often comes with it a drive to see who can first use the power of the state to implement their vision of how the good society should be.
Take the issue of gender and pronouns – for the progressive, a failure to use appropriate pronouns or acknowledge the right genders is about human rights and dignity; for the conservative, it is an attack on traditional values and an absurd deviance from tried and tested societal norms. At the heart of the split between the two sides is an unbridgeable gap, centred on notions of what it means to be human and how identity operates. But what distinguishes the culture war from persuasion is that the culture war is inwardly focused – it is more about rallying the troops and demonising the other side than it is about clearly and calmly going over why you believe what you do and why they should too. Both sides retreat to their respective barricades in the media, where they throw rhetorical Molotov cocktails at one another. National Review says there is a whiff of the Orwellian about all this pronoun stuff, and Breitbart says that Caitlyn Jenner’s approach to pronouns is a command to obedience and that using ‘her’ pronouns is dehumanising. By contrast, Everyday Feminism says misgendering someone inflicts harm, and that to misgender them threatens the physical safety of trans people. Being angry is the aim and the reward of the culture wars.
The libertarian solution of tolerance is simple: let people do what they want, try to change minds through persuasion and leave the state out of it. That is a decidedly unsexy result though – it is much more fun to feel the righteous burn of outrage at the other side. The culture war is a team sport where the generals, be them Andrew Bolt or Waleed Ali, put the call out and we get together to brow beat the other side for their sins, whereas live and let live has a less exciting outcome – mind your own business unless someone is keen to know about it.
The culture wars are a sideshow that distracts libertarians from the important work of tearing down state power, and by indulging our ideological outrages, we make our task of finding a working coalition harder. If someone thinks our goal in diminishing some aspect of state power is some sort of outflanking manoeuvre in the culture war, they are going to be less willing to partner with us. If conservative or progressive libertarians are constantly trying to spit in the face of those on the other side of the barricade, they are not going to be too eager to listen to you when you actually have something of interest to them. Libertarians should aim for a world where everyone can live according to their own preferences but no one will believe that is your goal if you harp on about how devilish their preferences are.
Everyone has biases – humans are subjective and my goal in this article isn’t to convince you to cast them off. What I aim to achieve is to let sleeping dogs lie, to let the outrage simmer down so that we can focus on what is truly important. The goal of libertarianism and the goals of the culture wars are at odds, and libertarians need to choose which end they are going to seek.