David R. Henderson  

Do Nick Gillespie/Matt Welch and David Gordon Disagree?

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Tolerance and the Libertarian ... Live and Let Live...

I have a different take from Bryan Caplan's on the debate between Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, on the one hand, and David Gordon, on the other. My take is informed by the further discussion that Bryan doesn't mention: Welch's response to Gordon and Gordon's rejoinder. Rather than leave you in suspense, I'll tell you my bottom line: they aren't disagreeing at all on what Gordon thought they were disagreeing on. Gordon probably still has remaining disagreements, but they are not the main one he highlights in his initial critique.

Start with the following statement from Gillespie and Welch that David Gordon quotes:

While there are competing definitions of what 'libertarian' means, the simplest understanding attaches to people who believe that government is less efficient than the private sector, that people should be left alone as much as possible to lead their own lives, and that tolerance is the most important social value.

The key thing to know is what Gillespie and Welch mean by the word "tolerance." I don't know if they define it--unfortunately, I haven't read their book. But the dictionary that comes with my Mac defines "tolerance" as "the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with."

So now we must look up "tolerate." The first two parts are the ones that apply:
1. allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference : a regime unwilling to tolerate dissent.
2. accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance : how was it that she could tolerate such noise?

Note the idea of allowing, accepting, even enduring. Nowhere in the definition of "tolerate" is there the idea of embracing or liking a particular group, practice, race, type of music, etc. "Tolerance," in short, seems to mean the belief in the idea of "live and let live." Notice that Bryan used exactly that term, "live and let live," to talk about tolerance. But "live and let live" is simply a popular way--one of the best, in my opinion--not only to define tolerance but also to characterize libertarianism. The idea is that I might not like the fact that you wear tattoos on your neck, say, but I don't use coercion to stop you. Or I might not like the fact that you, with an annual of income of $50,000, have decided to spend $10,000 of it annually on an expensive car, but I don't use coercion to stop you.

So with this definition of tolerance, Gillespie and Welch on the one hand and David Gordon on the other are not disagreeing at all.

But somehow Gordon has the idea that by "tolerance," Gillespie and Welch mean not only that one must accept, allow, and endure, but also that one must embrace other cultures, types of music, races, etc. I had wondered whether they meant that too. In his response, though, Welch makes clear that he doesn't mean that. Welch writes:

Our book's main point in discussing rock music was not to bully people into favoriting [sic] our record collections (Gillespie's, by his own admission, is terrible), but to celebrate the art form's potency as a force for personal and even national liberation, a fact that contradicts many of the official and unofficial condemnations of the stuff as setting back the cause of human liberty.

Welch argues that rock music has undercut totalitarian regimes. Whether he's right or wrong--I think he's right--one can embrace that argument without embracing rock music.

I would have expected David Gordon, one of the most careful readers I have ever known, to say, although he would probably said it better, "Oh, now I get it; I can still regard rock music as raucous noise but that doesn't, in Welch's view, undercut my libertarian credentials." Instead, here's what he actually said:

I am glad to learn that Welch does not think that you have to like rock music to be a libertarian. I stand corrected: apparently what you have to like is that other people like rock music. You must also deplore those who fear that this style of music will have bad consequences.

But there's no "have to" or "must." Again, Welch is simply pointing out that rock music has had good effects in creating liberty in totalitarian regimes. You don't have to like the fact that it has.

Having said all this, I am not saying that Gillespie/Welch and Gordon don't have real disagreements. But disagreement over tolerance is not one of them.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Steve Horwitz writes:

Gordon has to hold to his reading of G&W lest the whole "beltway libertarian, hippy, left-libertarian, neo-con, Hayekian, sell-out" strawman come tumbling down.

The fact that the Reason boys (and the rest of us who are sympathetic to their way of seeing libertarianism) might be making an argument whose policy implications and whose conception of libertarianism might be within 95% of Gordon's will not compute if you're really concerned with protecting your "holier than thou" turf.

Of course even 95% might not be enough for David.

Vangel writes:

The fact that the Reason boys (and the rest of us who are sympathetic to their way of seeing libertarianism) might be making an argument whose policy implications and whose conception of libertarianism might be within 95% of Gordon's will not compute if you're really concerned with protecting your "holier than thou" turf.

I do not see it as protecting a "holier than thou" turf. I see it simply as a matter of principle. Libertarians are defined by their position on when it is appropriate to initiate force against others. As Gordon points out, there is no need to turn this into a promotion of lifestyle choices one disagrees with. The fact that I have no problem with gays making their own decisions about how they should conduct their long term relationships does not mean that I have to promote a gay lifestyle. The fact that I believe that drugs should be legalized does not mean that I should promote or celebrate drug use. It is as simple as that.

Will Wilkinson writes:

"Libertarians are defined by their position on when it is appropriate to initiate force against others."

I think this should say "Some libertarians believe that libertarians are defined by their position on when it is appropriate to initiate force against others, and some libertarians don't." Nevertheless, we must tolerate those who embrace tendentiously narrow, question-begging definitions of libertarianism.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Vangel,
Vangel writes:
As Gordon points out, there is no need to turn this into a promotion of lifestyle choices one disagrees with.
True, and as I pointed out above, Welch's rejoinder makes clear that he agrees with Vangel's and Gordon's point.
We have enough real differences. Let's not waste time on seeing differences where there aren't any.

curioustask writes:
But there's no "have to" or "must."
There most certainly is a "have to" and a "must" in any attempt to define a term, which is exactly what both parties are attempting to do here. As in, in order to be called a libertarian you must be tolerant. If you are not tolerant you do not qualify as a libertarian.

You seem to think that both sides feel the same way about the definition of of tolerance. But, regardless of whether their proclaimed definitions match up, Mr. Gordon does not agree that what is in the Reason book is merely tolerance but rather rises to the level of promotion.

Libertarianism is an abstract meta-political philosophy. Any time any libertarian takes an absolute position on an issue that can only be understood in context he has left the realm of that philosophy.

"Rock music is a good thing," is just such a position. Even if there is, presently, something subversive and anti-establishment about rock music this need not always be so. In fact, I'd argue rock music is already no longer subversive. But Welch and Gillespie are wedded to their position, publicly and emotionally, when they should have remained agnostic.

David Gordon writes:

Thanks for your comments on my review. You suggest that Gillespie and Welch mean by tolerance no more than a "live and let live" attitude. Regardless of how one feels about various cultural issues and lifestyles, a libertarian ought to oppose the use of coercion where these are concerned.

You are quite right that tolerance can be taken in just the way you suggest, and if it is, then clearly libertarians must be tolerant. But the book goes considerably beyond that, at least in my judgment. Have you read the book, or is your analysis based only on my review and what Welch says in reply?

It is more than a little ironic that Steve Horwitz suggests that I wish to protect my holier-than-thou turf, when my account of libertarianism is a minimalist one and it is Gillespie and Welch who wish to narrow the scope of libertarianism by requiring that libertarians adopt certain social attitudes.

I do not agree with Will Wilkinson that my definition of libertarianism is tendentious. But if it is, it is tendentiously broad and not narrow, unless, indeed, Wilkinson thinks that one can be a libertarian and reject the non-aggression principle.

noiselull writes:

@David Gordon

One can certainly reject the NAP and call oneself a libertarian. If the NAP is required, Mises and Hayek must both be rejected. I myself see Roderick Long's definition of libertarianism as the advocacy of a redistribution of power from the coercive state to voluntary associations of free individuals, This definition does not allow for any nonsensical accusations of somebody not being "libertarian" on an issue.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Is it just me or is that definition of libertarianism from Gillespie and Welch that Gordon quotes just a definition of the liberal tradition??? I'm a libertarian by that definition.

This is one of the things that I always find odd about Reason's approach. They highlight for criticism truly egregious situations that I don't imagine many people would disagree with them on, and call opposition to it "libertarianism". They also highlight for praise a very vague libertarianism which often just amounts to a free, experimental, tolerant existence.

That's all fine, don't get me wrong, but Reason often seems to me to gloss over the real disagreements and present instead a liberalism that a lot more people sign onto.

Eric Hosemann writes:

@Daniel Kuehn:

Reason's approach is a feature, not a bug.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Eric -
It depends on your perspective. From the magazines perspective, I definitely agree. All I'm saying is that you are likely to get a lot of people like me who are non-libertarians by many definitions of "libertarianism" who think they have common cause, when many libertarians would disagree and call us statists.

If the goal is to create a broad liberal movement, then it is a feature - and I think that's a great goal. It's not clear to me that that's a goal for many other libertarians, though. I'm not even entirely sure if it's a goal for Gillespie and Welch - I don't know their motives well enough. Building a broad liberal movement is a good goal, in my mind - but it's been an uphill battle for me to even convince many people that a broad liberal tradition exists. For many, it's libertarianism on one side and opponents or obstacles to liberty on the other.

David R. Henderson writes:

@David Gordon,
Thanks for your response. No, I haven't read their book, as I noted in the post above. It seems clear that I need to.
The reason I weighed in on this without reading their book is that I'm used to your reviews being so thorough and careful. So I figured that in making your case that Gillespie and Welch go beyond tolerance in the dictionary sense, you would quote the strongest evidence for that. I looked at your quotes from the book and then Welch's responses. Then I looked at your response and saw that you didn't challenge him on the content of his responses. But if you can give examples where they are saying not only that you must be tolerant but also that you must embrace, I will end up on your side of the debate. Can you?

David Gordon writes:

On p.18 of their book, Gillespie and Welch say, "Freed of old cultural and social identities, we're all mutants now, and that's a good thing... Whether we're talking about color, sexual preference, or self-presentation, we live in a world beyond categories, with endlessly proliferating identities that are as personally liberating as they as generally terrifying to conservative and liberal bean counters alike."

P.120: "Few on either side of the relationship [between worker and company] particularly those just entering the workforce, pretend that any job is forever. . .This isn't to say that contemporary employees are amoral paladins, but they do rightfully insist on more autonomy and more individualized work situations and compensation packages."

In his response to me, Welch says: "Intermarriage and mixing–of people, of categories, of ideas–leads directly to more pluralism, more trade, more possibilities, and fewer opportunities for the majority to inflict its preferences onto less desirable minorities by force and exclusion."

The key issue, as I see it, is that Welch and Gillespie take cultural openness and a non-conformist attitude to be partly constitutive of libertarianism. Those cultural conservatives who, e.g., deplore departures from the traditional family but oppose the imposition of their views through coercion would not count as fully libertarian, in Gillespie and Welch's account. This is what I oppose.

Eric Hosemann writes:

Another paragraph relevant to the discussion is the second one in Kerry Howley’s portion of “Are Property Rights Enough”:

Chang’s book is full of such women: once-obedient daughters who make a few yuan, then hijack the social hierarchy. Even tiny incomes cash out in revolutionary ways. With little more than 1,000 yuan (about $150) in Min’s pocket, it becomes possible to plan a life independent of her family’s expectations, to conceive of a world where she decides where to live, how to spend her time, and with whom.[emphasis mine]

Where would Min be without a right to keep her earnings? Without wages that at least crudely define opportunity cost, how would she be able to decide whether quitting her patriarchal village for a factory job in a bustling urban hub was worth the effort?


Vangel writes:

@ David

We have enough real differences. Let's not waste time on seeing differences where there aren't any.

Agreed. But if that is the case and we all believe the same things why is Reason running attack pieces on Ron Paul, who is the most libertarian candidate for President that we have seen in our lifetime? Isn't it time that the libertarians at Reason stopped making misleading arguments and attack candidates who deserve the support of libertarians?

Vangel writes:

Building a broad liberal movement is a good goal, in my mind - but it's been an uphill battle for me to even convince many people that a broad liberal tradition exists. For many, it's libertarianism on one side and opponents or obstacles to liberty on the other.

It should be clear that libertarians have a serious problem. If they make concessions to get more people interested in some of their goals they no longer have the principles that are the foundation for their pro-liberty arguments. For this reason it is doubtful that the libertarian movement will remain relatively small. Broad popular movements have to be based on a collection of myths and lies that stir the passions. The fact that these myths and lies contradict each other does not mean much because popular movements are dependent on slogans and emotion, not deep thought and logic.

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