Bryan Caplan  

Live and Let Live

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David (Henderson, not Gordon) writes:
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.
Notice, though, that "live and let live" has two distinct meanings.  One, as David suggests, is simply a popular way of saying, "It would be wrong to use force to stop you." (sense #1)  But "live and let live" also has a stronger connotation: "The fact that your lifestyle is very different from mine is no big deal." (sense #2) 

My point is simply that the two senses of "live and let live" are intertwined.  Most obviously:

1. People who believe #2 typically think #1.

2. People who vehemently deny #2 rarely think #1.

Libertarians love to quote Voltaire's, "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."  Philosophically, it's a vital distinction.  But as a practical matter, "What's the big freakin' deal?" is a more reliable attitudinal foundation for liberty.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
John Thacker writes:

They are intertwined in most people, but to me that's a reflection of how most people aren't libertarians. I think that a lot of people who think #2 about even many or most things still have some issues that they consider important enough to dislike people being different on. Hippies might have environmental concerns, for example.

People who think #2 on everything might be rarer than people who distinguish #1 and #2.

However, to get a majority on any political issue of liberty, it is necessary to ally with people who only don't want to ban something because they like or at least don't dislike it. So at the same time it's important to realize how most people are.

Amelia writes:

Most folks can "tolerate" others whose lifestyle is very different from their own -- up to the point when those others take control of the education of the children, convincing them that their parents ways of thinking and living should not be tolerated.

Paul Sand writes:

I wonder how much your argument depends on that word vehemently? Does it work if you de-italicize it, or even omit it?

Also "no big deal" is unclear. A big deal to whom? The person speaking, or the one being spoken to? Or is it some kind of free-floating quality, unattached to either?

I guess I'm kind of a judgmental person myself, but I'm not very vehement about it. Maybe it's the vehemence that's the problem, not the judgmentalism.

You might be interested in the case of Anthony Bourdain vs. Paula Deen. Lots of vehemence there.

Nathan Smith writes:

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," said abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and I think this was a common sentiment in the founders' day.

Vigilance is almost the opposite of "what's the big freakin' deal?" If that were the attitude of Wendell Phillips and others like him, slavery would be here to this day.

Indifference is not a "reliable attitudinal foundation for liberty." It is an attitudinal foundation for letting one's guard down, and doing little or nothing as the government takes away one's freedoms, bit by bit.

Liberty requires that people care passionately. They should be high-minded, keenly concerned with virtue, even perhaps judgmental and censorious, as was Cato the Younger, namesake of the Cato Institute. Principle alone, not apathy, should lead them to refrain from coercion.

Vangel writes:

I still believe that the main issue comes down to principle. Libertarians should agree that it is wrong to use force to stop people from choosing lifestyles that we ourselves would not choose. The fact that some of us may believe that it is not a big deal that people do things that we may find distasteful does nor make us better libertarians. As David Gordon suggests tolerance of the views and behaviours of others does not require that we promote those views or behaviours.

roystgnr writes:

Look at just one historical impediment to freedom: Most religious traditions (including the atheistic for this comment) include beliefs that imply that most different religious believers are severely deluded about the nature and purpose of reality. Many religions go so far as to believe that this delusion will cause the deluded to ruin their lives, forgo eternal rewards, or endure eternal suffering as a consequence of their delusion, with the damage only being mitigated to the extent that such delusions can be stamped out faster than they are spread to others.

"What's the big freakin' deal," as a practical matter, is not only unreliable but utterly impossible. And it's even counter-productive - it only feeds the authoritarians' defensive claim that liberty is really just a stalking horse for some form of immorality.

Let's stick to tolerance qua tolerance, please? Even that's been unfortunately difficult, but it seems to at least be workable.

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